What could schools and classrooms look like when the district moves to part-time in-class instruction?
The Now-Leader got a glimpse during a visit to one of four sites at the district that are currently being used for childcare for children of essential workers.
The Surrey school district initially started with two sites, said Surrey Schools spokesperson Ritinder Matthew, after sending out a survey to find out how many parents in the district are “tier 1 essential service workers.”
That need grew to four schools, with “tier 2 essential service workers” now being included.
In total, Matthew said there are about 40 to 45 students at each site.
“There is capacity for more and at each school, it varies,” she said. ‘You won’t have 40 to 45 kids at any one point in the day because these parents generally work shift work and they’re often dropping off really early, picking up at noon or whatever the case may be, but it varies by student.”
For Hugh MacKinnon, who has been a teacher since 1987 – now a teacher-on-call – he’s never seen anything like this.
“As a student as well. When I go all the way back to (being a kid), there was nothing like this; six kids in a classroom,” he said. “They come in at varied times because the parents have shift work and some don’t come until the afternoon, some don’t come at all. It’s one of those things that as a classroom teacher, you fill out a form and if Bobby isn’t here, they phone. If Bobby isn’t here, this time you don’t phone.”
MacKinnon isn’t the students’ regular teacher, but he said he’s in the classroom to help the children with their assignments.
“It’s a very good experience for the children, I think,” he said. “I really see the siblings helping each other out. They really support each other. Like a Grade 5 and a kindergartener in the same class and the way that they help each other. In this classroom today, we have a girl in Grade 6, kind of showing a math concept to a Grade 3 (student). I was on the side just watching.”
However, MacKinnon said this new normal does come with some challenges.
“It’s constant that you have to wash your hands. They’ve been great about it, washing their hands and social distancing… They play with lego, it has to be washed. They play with a basketball, it has to be washed. We can’t even play a tag game. You can’t play tag. You’re in Grade 2 and you can’t play tag, so we have to adapt,” he said.
“Try being in a class with kindergartens and Grade 1s. You want to share, you want to be with each other. That’s all of what kindergarten is all about, playing and being together and you can’t do it this way. You have to separate. It’s been difficult for them – not difficult. It’s been a learning experience for them and they’ve had to adapt. They’ve done quite well, I think.”
For Amrit Dhillon, an educational assistant with the district, said this new structure is “definitely different” from her typical school setting.
“Our days were very busy with a lot of learning and a lot of structure, whereas this is different because there’s more flexibility,” she explained. “The reason there’s flexibility is because these students are unfamiliar to this setting and we’re creating that sense of belonging for them, so they’re actually calling me by my first name, which is not typical in a school setting, but we’re just making sure that they feel safe and welcome.”
Educational assistants were asked to volunteer to help with childcare at the beginning of the pandemic, with more than 200 support staff in the Surrey school district wanted to help, said Marcey Campbell, president of CUPE 728, which represents more than 4,000 workers in the district.
Dhillon said she’s “glad” she’s able to come in and help the children and their families.
“We’re social beings and sometimes we forget to keep that distance, so even the students will remind us to keep that safe distance amongst each other, but other than that, I think this is actually really helpful for our frontline workers, the families that are working and risking their lives to go to jobs.”
As for how the children are handling the situation. Dhillon said in the classroom she works in, they’ll have an open discussion on the virus.
“Sometimes the students are curious, so they’ll us about what’s happening right now, what this disease is and how it came to be. Then we do an open conversation, like open discussion, where everybody gives their input. It’s interesting to hear different perspectives from all these children.”
Asked if this could be what schools could look like when it’s time for students to come back, Matthew said, “I think there’s a lot of learnings that can translate into the eventual return on in-class instruction.
“Children do adapt quickly. And they are children, they want to play, they want to learn, like they normally do, and so just finding different ways to be able to allow that to happen while still teaching children to physically distance from each other and having them regular hand washing and other infection-control practices.”
Matthew said when children are dropped off at the schools, the parents have to do a “check list.”
“Are there any symptoms anyone’s experiencing? So there is that screening as well, so that’s a big learning for the district, just to be able to ensure the kids coming into school are healthy and then they’re doing the appropriate infection control when they’re in class,” she said.
“The district’s first priority is health and safety for staff and students.”
Dhillon said bringing kids back for face-to-face instruction is “doable,” but there is “a lot of thinking and a lot of work to be done ahead of time.”
“Now we have less numbers in the classroom,” she noted. “The most number of kids that we’ve had in our room is seven and it’s easy to have seven kids in their own designated areas, whereas if we’re looking at a full classroom, it isn’t possible. We’ll have to look at some ways like alternating days some students come in, or even alternating in the morning and the afternoon.”