Royal Oak School is planning to welcome kids again in September.
Robin Ridesic, a parent and member of the school’s board, said that unless there’s a “drastic change” to COVID-19 numbers, the school is “fully prepared to open.”
“But we are doing it very carefully and cautiously to make sure in the COVID environment that the kids can remain safe,” Ridesic said.
She said the school will be implementing a “very robust COVID policy” to help ensure the school is as safe as possible.
“We’re kind of doing it all. We’re daily screening the kids before they enter the school, we’re taking temperatures with a touchless thermometer, we’re ensuring they don’t have any symptoms before they even enter the building,” Ridesic said.
“And then there’s kind of a complete gauntlet of protocol around hand washing at least five times a day, sanitizing all the high-touch surfaces at least three times a day, we’re using UV light in the classroom overnight just as an extra disinfectant.”
She said the school is still waiting to get feedback from all students’ families with regards to requiring the children to wear face shields in the classroom as well.
“The faceshields are significantly preferable in a school environment to a mask for a couple reasons. One, kids have a hard time with masks and they fidget with them. And that kind of defeats the purpose to a large degree. And two, the nonverbal communication is so important in the classroom. So the face shields are great.”
She said the school will source them locally from Rene Bertschi, a NOTL resident who has been printing face shields using his 3D printer.
She said parents are rightfully concerned, but that they’re more comfortable with the smaller school.
“I think every single parent in the country is concerned about their children returning to school,” Ridesic said.
“We are in a great position as a small school school with a community of parents who can actually provide input and feedback on these things, that I think our parents are feeling much more comfortable than most are. And we do have the ability to put all these extra steps into place that are impossible at other schools. So yes, I think there are general hesitations of any parents about returning their kids to school but I think we are going to do it in the safest way possible to give our parents as much reassurance as they can.”
She said she understands that even going back in a smaller group is still a risk, but believes the educational and social benefits outweigh that risk.
“The reality is, in any environment where you’re bringing, whether it’s 10, or 15 kids together, or people for that matter, those situations are by definition higher risk than our children staying at home,” Ridesic said.
“But I think all of us — ’cause you know, I’m a board member, and I’m a parent — I recognize the trade off between the potentially increased risk of exposure to COVID versus the mental health and educational benefit to my children — and social benefits to my kids being back to school. And so I think the school is doing a really awesome job to minimize as much as possible that COVID risk, so that the benefits from the social, the mental health and the education completely outweigh that risk, in my opinion.”
She said so far most families have been in agreement about returning to school.
“But it is an ongoing dialogue and we’re continuing to be flexible and kind of adjust our policies based on feedback from our community.”
So far, only two students won’t be returning, one because of health concerns, she said, adding there’s been a “big uptick in enrolment.”
She said 11 new kids have already registered for the fall and others have said they were going to.
She suspects the increase is for two main reasons: parents weren’t happy with the online learning available at other schools and families are more comfortable in the COVID-era with sending their children to a smaller school.
“There are lots of benefits to being a small school but in a COVID environment that gets magnified by many times. And so I think parents are feeling more comfortable sending their kids to a smaller school where they know that there are going to be those extra health and safety protocols in place.”
The school has also been allowed to swap rooms at the former hospital site on Queen Street — a space it leases from the Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake.
“The town has given us permission to expand and use the whole second floor of the hospital site so that we can really set the children up to be socially distanced within the classroom, and create a very safe environment, despite COVID, for them to continue learning.”
Ridesic asked council to consider the room swap on July 20.
She told councillors the swap would allow students to return to a safer environment, as they would have more space to spread out.
The school will trade nine rooms and nine bathrooms for five larger rooms and four bathrooms.
“(It) will allow our classes to spread out and socially distance effectively within the classes,” Ridesic said.
She said the move would permit classes to be split into two groups, both entering from different sides of the building.
That way the school can “create these little class bubbles where each class has a classroom, a breakout room, a boys and girls bathroom and is physically separated … And that allows the students and our staff to return to school safely come September,” Ridesic said.
She noted the swap comes at no cost to the town and the space the school will be using is currently unoccupied.
Royal Oak school is privately funded and an alternative to public schooling, Ridesic pointed out.
“The school offers a local option for residents of Old Town as well as an alternative to the public system for all residents of Niagara,” she said, adding the school is open to anyone, independent of their financial situation.