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School District 48 gets to work on cohort learning model

Creating safe environment for return to school ‘No. 1 job over the next few weeks,’ says superintendent
School District 48 has just a few weeks to solidify its new cohort learning model, designed to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

With the news last week that students across B.C. will return to class this September, officials from School District 48 (SD48) have several weeks to iron out the details of the province’s new cohort learning model. 

On Wednesday, July 29, provincial education minister Rob Fleming announced the full reopening of B.C.’s schools on Sept. 8 with enhanced safety measures and a new learning model in place that will see students and staff organized into consistent learning groups. 

Based on advice from provincial health officials, the cohort model is intended to limit the number of people each student and staff member come in contact with, reducing the risk of COVID-19 transmission and allowing for quicker contact tracing. Cohorts for elementary and middle school students and staff will be capped at 60 people, while secondary schools will see cohorts limited to 120. 

Sea to Sky School District superintendent Lisa McCullough envisions the cohort model will be easier to implement in the lower grades than in high schools, particularly for graduating students.  

“We’re excited to have the kids back, but it’s going to take a lot of planning time to figure out what’s the best way to do this,” she explained.  “I think the real tricky things are going to be in the secondary school programming for our students in the graduation program and needing certain courses for their post-secondary and graduation goals. Figuring out a cohort model where we still support each one of those students in being able to achieve those individual goals is really important to us.” 

In a July 30 letter to parents, McCullough noted that online learning might be used to further support graduating students. She also added that the learning plan would accommodate students with specific learning needs.  

Some key details of the cohort model still need to be ironed out. McCullough said the learning groups will remain together for a determined amount of time, and measures will be put in place in the event of a change to the groupings. 

“The cohort models themselves will just take time to set down, because we’ll want to do that on a very personal level for our students in order to get the right teachers in the cohort,” she said. “There may be semester changes and things where we will change cohorts, and then there will be a health protocol for those kinds of changeovers.” 

Specific plans around lunch breaks, recess and “mobility in the school” still need to be fleshed out as well, McCullough added. 

With just weeks before students return to class, the BC Teachers’ Federation has called for more time to fully develop a back-to-school plan that will keep everyone safe. 

“The reopening needs to be safe, careful, and get the buy-in of teachers, support staff, parents, and students,” said federation president Teri Mooring in a July 29 statement. “If the plan is rushed or too many questions are left unanswered, it won’t be successful. Bringing everyone back all at once, even with some version of a cohort model, on the first day after the Labour Day long weekend, is too much too soon given the many unanswered questions in today’s announcement.” 

Acknowledging there may be some kinks to iron out as the district settles into the new learning model, Whistler Secondary School (WSS) PAC chair Tanya Goertzen is confident administrators will find an effective approach.    

“I think that in our school and one the size of Whistler Secondary, it’s very possible to go into the cohort model. The social, emotional and academic development really hinges on being in the classroom, so I think this allows kids to look forward to going back to school,” she said, noting that WSS had a student population just over 500 last year. “Definitely our district has some work to do and our school has some work to do on scheduling, but there are a lot of [strategies] out there that will make it possible to go into the cohort model.”  

District officials are still unclear on what the corridor’s international student makeup will be next year, with travel restrictions likely to still be in place. Ottawa has allowed foreign students to stay in or enter the country provided they have a valid study permit or permanent resident status obtained on or before March 18, but there has been no word on whether permits acquired after that date will be upheld.  

The uncertainty comes at a time when international interest in Sea to Sky’s schools appears to be on the rise, McCullough said. 

“I don’t have any data to prove that, but I certainly know that I’m taking more calls and so is my team. They are very excited about how well our province has handled the situation, and that makes it a safe place for families to send their children,” she noted. “So we’ll be relying on information around student learning visas being accepted [by Ottawa]. It’s a federal matter, so we’re excited to hear that that might still be going forward.” 

As it prepares to enter Stage 2 of B.C.’s Education Restart Plan, Victoria has committed a one-time, $45.6-million investment to support school districts as they increase sanitation protocols. This will include increased cleaning of high-contact surfaces, more hand-hygiene stations, and the availability of masks upon request. (Masks will not be mandatory in schools, but recommended and provided in situations where physical distancing is not possible.) 

“We’re going to create a safe environment for our students and staff. That’s ultimately the No. 1 job over the next few weeks, and student learning comes after that assurance that we’ve got a safety plan protocol that works,” McCullough promised. “We’re looking forward to everybody showing up when that first day of school comes so we can get organized quickly to support everybody.”