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Navigating educational uncertainty

What’s the new normal for Sea to Sky schools, tutors, and childcare look like?
Navigating educational uncertainty. What’s the new normal for Sea to Sky schools, tutors, and childcare look like? Story by Steven Chua

School in the Sea to Sky School district will look very different when students return to class next month.

On Aug. 19, School District 48 (SD48) held a board meeting, during which the new normal for students was discussed.

Many of the plans outlined by Superintendent Lisa McCullough followed the COVID-19 prescriptions made by the province. However, she noted there are still a number of things up in the air.

“The purpose of this evening’s meeting is to bring everyone briefly up to speed with where we are currently at,” said McCullough. “It is not to have a completed plan yet and it is not to post it publicly yet … There will be many questions I can’t answer yet.”

Some of the biggest changes come from following the province’s plans closely.

For example, the students will be grouped into learning “cohorts” that will be spending the majority of their time together. Students within these groups, which are capped at 60 for elementary and middle schools, and 120 at high schools, won’t have to wear masks, and won’t have to follow stringent physical distancing rules when they’re together.

However, they will have to wear masks and distance when in the company of people outside of their cohort.

“It’s like a really big bubble, and within that bubble, you can interact more closely, but it doesn’t mean we’re piling you all into a classroom together,” McCullough said.

Students will have to adjust to other smaller changes as well. For instance, not being allowed to use their lockers. For the first few weeks, there will be few or no visitors allowed in schools.

By the end of this week, the Sea to Sky School District will have submitted its school plan to the ministry. Like many other districts, it is planning to operate on a quarter system at the high-school level where students will take two courses every 10 weeks, thus keeping the class learning concentrated and with just two teachers at a time across a full day of learning. In class, unless cohort students are mixed, the two-metre rule can be relaxed and mask wearing will not be mandatory.

School facilities will also be considered.

Ian Currie, the Sea to Sky School District’s director of operations for facilities, said that inspectors would be coming to assess ventilation systems.

Currie said that they are aiming to meet a ventilation standard that would filter out small particles such as bacteria.

However, at the moment, it’s unclear if the schools have ventilation systems that will allow for those types of filters, which are usually thicker, he said.

“We’re working with our mechanical engineer on coming up with a standard that would meet what we need to do with the air exchanges within all our schools,” said Currie.

“We’re wondering if those types of filters will fit within our existing air-handling units.”

High-touch surfaces will be cleaned once a day in the middle of the day.

Not everything is changing for students, though.

For example, playgrounds will be open, though they won’t be disinfected regularly. Food services will still be available to children who rely on them. For those with younger kids, StrongStart learning programs will still happen on school grounds.

The board also voted unanimously in favour of two motions.

The first motion pauses school-bus services for non-eligible students. Those are generally students who are outside the catchment area or who live close enough to the school to walk to classes.

McCullough said that resources for bus services are strained and that the school district does not have enough to serve non-eligible students while still abiding by health protocols.

Generally speaking, health protocols only allow for two children per seat, whereas before, it was possible to fit up to three.

The second motion directs school authorities to add homeschooling to the school district’s online school program for Kindergarten to Grade 9.

The details on the program are still fuzzy, but the idea is to give students who go the homeschooling route an ability to interact with certified school teachers online as part of their learning.

Previously, parents were almost entirely responsible for the learning of homeschooled students.

Online learning used this spring, meanwhile, was teacher-directed—it will expanded from K to Grade 12.

McCullough said adding teacher supports for homeschooled kids would give families more options in light of the pandemic.

“We are going to figure this out,” she said.

“Circumstances under the pandemic have changed, so we are pivoting to try and support our families.”

She also said it was a way for School District 48 to maintain its student count, as parents who did not get that online option might go to other school districts that offer it. Along with that would come a possible reduction in funding for Sea to Sky schools, she noted.

“If we don’t do this, we could lose hundreds of kids to another school district—now we have a funding problem,” said McCullough.

“So I think the best shot we have at not [losing students] is to try and keep the kids in our care. I want to be very clear: nothing about this suggestion has anything to do with money. It is simply to try to support families in a situation where they’re struggling to figure out how to keep their families safe right now [when] they send their kids to school, and we hope as they build confidence in our system that they will come back into the school setting.”

Indeed, one parent at the meeting said she un-enrolled her child at School District 48 and registered her in Victoria for online courses, one of about 25 other parents making a similar consideration. But in light of the motion, she said she was reconsidering registering her child back into the Sea to Sky.

Several of the 40 people in the online audience had questions about what would happen to children who were immunocompromised.

McCullough encouraged those parents to contact her to develop an individualized learning plan.

As part of her presentation, she also said that immunocompromised children will be given learning programs that will allow them to work from home.

“Students who are immunocompromised—as always, this is not new—will be given a home program… Our schools always take care of that,” McCullough said.

Staff will write individual plans for these students, she added.

International student enrolment is also changing due to the pandemic. Numbers are down.

Faizel Rawji, the district principal in charge of international education, said that currently, there are 36 international students enrolled, with 19 more registered so far for the second semester.

The district hosted 188 such students in 2019-20.

McCullough said local families have been more than willing to accommodate these students.

International students who are just arriving will quarantine before classes resume.

There’s also a question of whether new arrivals will be allowed to cross Canada’s borders when school starts.

In the meantime, to increase enrolment, the school district is looking into offering online learning for international students, so they can participate while staying in their home countries.

McCullough also urged parents to complete an online survey that’s being sent to parents. It will be crucial for helping the schools prepare for class in the midst of the pandemic.

“Every single parent please complete this survey individually for each of your children,” she said.

A version of this story originally appeared in The Squamish Chief on Aug. 21.  With files from Clare Ogilvie

Tutoring, childcare fields strive to remain ‘nimble’ as pandemic continues

By Dan Falloon

September is a time for youngsters to get back to class and resume learning, of course.

But back-to-school time also means businesses and organizations in related industries are ramping up as well.

Here’s a quick look at how some of them are preparing themselves to help give students and parents peace of mind in the 2020-21 school year.


If students need extra support during the year, local tutoring services are ready to step up.

Robyn Akehurst of Alpine Learning has run the service for two years and has taken on significantly more summer work in advance of the school year for both elementary and secondary students.  

“Before COVID, I was very booked, very busy, and during COVID, I had even more demand than I could have even expected,” she said. “This year, in particular, families have wanted the academic support.”

“It’s been a big learning curve for both students, parents and myself,” Akehurst added, noting that though she is proficient in the use of technology with her business background and students are used to learning online, there have been unique circumstances during the pandemic.

For example, when students were sent home in the spring and classes shifted online, many found the large-group sessions to be challenging. Akehurst offers one-on-one or small-group opportunities, freeing students from distractions while also allowing them greater capacity to ask questions.

In addition to covering the materials, Alpine Learning also gives students skills in mindfulness, breath work, organizational strategies, goal setting and reflection to help them be successful.

“I’m working with a lot of students and families to ensure that they have workspaces at home that they can count on for being organized, and a place where they can turn inwards with their academic goals,” she said. “We’re working with a lot of families to establish some routines in these unprecedented times.”

As a mother of elementary-school-aged children, Akehurst has confidence in the district to run a safe school setting and counts on it to make necessary adjustments should a need arise.

Come September, Akehurst will offer returning students the option of in-person tutoring with safety protocols in place. She added that it’s now more important than ever for families to advocate and receive support for student needs, especially if they are challenged by conditions such as dyslexia or ADHD.

Down the Sea to Sky, Rick Smith of Squamish Tutoring observed a significant dropoff in students in the spring after schools started to shut down, with only about half of the 100 students the service welcomes each semester carrying on.

The organization generally accepts students in Grades 7 to 12 for help in math and science, but will take older elementary students on a case-by-case basis. Smith posited that the type of work that elementary students do makes it easier for them to work independently, whereas senior classes can find the adaptation difficult.

“Senior teachers had a very challenging time delivering curriculum in the senior math and senior science courses online,” he said, adding that the online format made it difficult for students to learn collaboratively in class.

Calls for service are picking up in advance of the year, he said.

“April, May and June was a disaster for them,” is the prevailing message Smith has received from parents.

While Smith offers traditional tutoring, Carol Huang of the newly opened Dr. Panda Academy is taking a bit of a different approach. While offering services such as French tutoring, it also provides students an opportunity for growth outside of school with courses in robotics and coding.

“We also want to provide high-quality classes to help students who especially have interests and a need in a certain field. We want to help them achieve their dream,” she said.

The set-up is four students per class to ensure students have adequate space and that physical-distancing requirements are met, Huang said.

Being a new business, Huang is hopeful to learn from local families about what they’re looking for in order “to provide more classes to cater to their interests and their needs.”

The service also provides English and math tutoring, especially to international students and new immigrants.


Jaye Russell, executive director of Sea to Sky Community Services (SSCS), which offers both childcare resources and referral from Squamish through to Pemberton, said the organization would be offering its entire regular programming in September. After the pandemic hit this spring, the organization limited services to families of essential workers.

SSCS, Russell stressed, has worked to follow all guidelines and protocols to ensure all programs are ready for operation.

“I’m proud that we have followed the guidelines, adjusted our programs, been adaptive and resilient at the same time, and are providing a safe and secure environment for families and children to receive care in the Sea to Sky corridor,” she said.

SCSS has filled all 176 of its out-of-school spots for school-aged children in Squamish and Pemberton, and 68 pre-school spots in Squamish. It is creating waitlists, but also offers referrals to other childcare centres.

As the mother of five-year-old twins, Russell can relate to parents’ concerns heading into September.

“As parents of young children, the No. 1 concern as we return to work is childcare,” she said. “Now, with the added layer of the pandemic and the uncertainty of returning children to school, what that long-term projection is going to look like from a pandemic standpoint, where will we be and how long will children remain in school? Given what the anticipated surge is going to look like in the fall, I know a lot of parents are anxious.”

That’s because, Russell said, the contingency plan relies on childcare being available.

“[Parents] are trying to manage a busy work schedule and managing the concerns they have to have their children attend a safe, supportive and healthy environment in childcare,” she said, adding that SCSS worked closely with SD48 in the spring, and it is prepared to adapt once again if necessary.

“What we’ve learned over the past five months is that we have to remain flexible and nimble,” she said. “This plan that we have can be scaled up or scaled back, depending on the severity of the pandemic.”

With some corridor facilities changing their offerings or remaining closed during the pandemic, Russell stressed that creating more childcare spaces is a ”constant” need.

“All of those programs throughout the corridor have and continue to see a demand,” she added.

As a member of the Mayor’s Task Force on COVID-19 Response and Recovery in Pemberton, Russell is further helping to address the need for childcare in the community.

The lack of spaces is acute in Whistler, and an issue that council is looking to address (“Childcare report provides a roadmap (with some gaps),” Pique, Aug. 20, 2020).

Kate McCormick, the director of Mountain Minis Childcare, said staff shortages forced her to shutter the junior program at this time, but they are near capacity for the remaining spaces.

McCormick initially closed the centre in March, as most children were staying home and it wasn’t viable to run with only two participants. After three weeks of preparation, Mountain Minis reopened in June, starting with six to eight children a day and slowly growing. Keeping a ratio of eight children to one worker means that there are eight fewer spots right now.

McCormick described running on “a skeleton staff” even prior to the pandemic.

“I’ve been advertising for over a year at all the colleges in Vancouver that run early childhood education programs, on Facebook, Craigslist, word of mouth, all of it, and there’s just no one out there that wants to move to the Sea to Sky,” she said. “Everyone was working their maximum hours and no one was allowed to get sick. We didn’t get to that point, but if someone got sick, we would have a really hard time finding someone to cover.”

Since re-opening, in addition to standard procedures such as screening children and employees daily and setting out cones to allow parents to distance during drop-off and pick-up, Mountain Minis has shifted to a format spending about 90 per cent of the day outdoors, weather permitting, while shortening hours of operation to allow for additional sanitation time, and removing items that can’t be sanitized safely with bleach.

The centre, McCormick added, is also seeking to help children navigate the confusing times.

“We have a daily discussion as to what’s happening in our world. ‘What do you see happening?’” she said. “They’re getting it, so it’s good to have that open conversation and say, ‘This is why we’re doing these things, to protect each other.’”

Sports, clubs & extracurricular activities

As for extracurricular opportunities within schools, SD48 superintendent McCullough confirmed that offerings can only occur under a strict set of circumstances.

“Extracurricular activities including sports, arts and special interest clubs can only occur if: Physical distance can be maintained between members of different learning groups [and] reduced physical contact is practiced by those within the same learning group,” she wrote in an email.

Interschool sports are currently off the table, though BC School Sports executive director Jordan Abney is looking to find ways to safely return.

“[W]e are making every effort to present a case to the government to allow a modified school sport to return safely and responsibly based on the Return to School Sport work that has been prepared this summer,” Abney wrote in an Aug. 13 memo. “We have also received a lot of questions from parents and AD’s about the discrepancy between school sports and those happening already in the community. We understand the frustration and are communicating those to the government.”