Mission students head back to class on Sept. 7, to a school environment described as “near normal,” by Mission Superintendent Angus Wilson.
Revised health orders have been put in place by the Ministry of Health as the province deals with a fourth wave of COVID largely infecting the un-vaccinated, who account for the vast majority of the new infections and hospitalizations.
“Superficially, it looks a bit like last year … But actually, there’s been a significant number of changes,” Wilson said.
The most significant change is that school populations will no longer be divided into learning cohorts, which limited the number of people that could interact at schools.
Sports (including between schools) and extra-curricular activities, such as theatre and dance, will be returning for students; for staff, gatherings and meetings can be held in person again.
“That’s really important for thinking about things like playing with your friends, and having all the elective courses you want,” Wilson said. “There’s not really any restrictions in that regard.”
But some health measures remain. The mask mandate is still in place for all staff, Grades 4 to 12 students, and all those riding on public buses. Daily health checks are still in place, along with rules around staying home when sick.
Vaccine passports will not be required to attend or visit schools, but complications arise around indoor school events where a parent would attend, said Wilson.
“We can have a basketball game, and all the kids can play basketball, and that’s all good. But as soon as parents want to show up, it actually changes the nature of the event,” he said. “It’s tricky.”
Wilson said there’s a couple “gray areas” they’re still awaiting for further clarification on from the Ministry of Education.
Regardless, he said the district will have to remain adaptive as provincial policy is subject to change with the rate of infections and hospitalizations.
Staff are monitoring those numbers closely, he said, and Fraser Health is in continual communication with B.C. school districts regarding the Delta strain of the virus.
The district does not have data on the number of its students and staff which have been fully vaccinated, Wilson said, but he pointed to data showing the Eastern Fraser Valley has a relatively low vaccination rate compared to other regions.
According to the BC Centre for Disease Control (as of Aug. 24): Hope has the lowest rate in the region, with only 33 per cent of kids aged 12 to 17 fully vaccinated; Mission and Chilliwack are tied for second lowest at 45 per cent; followed by Agassiz and Harrison at 48 per cent; and Abbotsford at 49 per cent.
Pop-up vaccination clinics will be offered at Mission schools through Fraser Health, and anyone over the age of 12 will be allowed to receive their shots. Parental permission is not required.
“That’s a bit of a rub with some parents,” Wilson said. “But to be clear, we can’t force anyone or whatever to get vaccinated.”
As far as recovering from the pandemic’s effects on the previous school year, mentors and support teachers are being brought in to help students catch up, Wilson said.
Attendance was a significant area of concern last year, he said, as well as students’ mental health, adding that academic performance is secondary. He said although the data is incomplete, some students are definitely behind.
“We tend to get really caught up in the academic side of things,” Wilson said. “People need to feel safe and secure before they’re prepared to learn. So it’s why we’ve invested a lot in our mental-health work.”
Suicide risk assessments were up 50 per cent for elementary students last year, according to a year-end report for 2020/2021.
A “slew of programs,” along with an emphasis on mental-health literacy is being made available for students in upper elementary and middle schools, Wilson said, and staff will have access to a series of workshops.
“We’re actually one of the districts that has been highlighted by the province for our work in this area,” Wilson said.
More international students are returning this year as well. Currently, 90 students are enrolled, but Wilson expects this number to rise to at least 110. Pre-COVID registration was at around 150, and last year only 75 attended.