Scott Saywell, Nanaimo Ladysmith Public Schools’ superintendent and CEO, says he is glad the school district will continue fielding a COVID-19 rapid reponse team for the Island Health region. (Karl Yu/News Bulletin)

Scott Saywell, Nanaimo Ladysmith Public Schools’ superintendent and CEO, says he is glad the school district will continue fielding a COVID-19 rapid reponse team for the Island Health region. (Karl Yu/News Bulletin)

Schools can learn from Vancouver Island COVID-19 rapid response, says team lead

Administrators report fewer behavioural issues with less crowded school hallways during pandemic

Vancouver Island school districts could stand to learn from pandemic-era protocols, says the person in charge of the region’s COVID-19 rapid response team last school year.

The B.C. Ministry of Education selected Nanaimo Ladysmith Public Schools to field a team in 2020-21 to review significant school exposures in the Island Health region and look at safety plans, conduct assessments, make recommendations, communicate with students and families and implement best practices. In an e-mail, the ministry confirmed the district will again have that responsibility this year.

Piet Langstraat, former Greater Victoria school superintendent, served as team lead last year and said SD68 schools did an excellent job of implementing protocols with no major issues. COVID-19 adjustments made by schools led to surprising results, he said.

“As schools were using things like staggered school start and end times and lunch times, and things like pre-ordering from the cafeteria, what they were reporting is there was a sharp decline in behavioural issues, which is really interesting,” said Langstraat. “One of the recommendations is for schools and districts to think about utilizing those strategies even after COVID, because it really helped with safe and orderly environment in the school.”

Langstraat said lockers were empty and school bells weren’t being utilized, as administrators manually dismissed class in a staggered fashion.

“There weren’t a whole bunch of kids congregating in the hallways at the same time,” said Langstraat. “In elementary schools, there were different zones on the playground to play and so behaviour incidents that would happen in hallways … or out on the playground at elementary school, there was just a drastic reduction in those kinds of things happening.”

There were COVID-19 exposures and clusters of cases but no outbreaks at schools in the region, but Langstraat noted that there are improvements that could be made. Ensuring proper mental health supports was top-of-mind for staff and administrators, he said.

“There were a large number of young people and adults who were really disconnected through this pandemic and students and adults who struggle with mental health issues,” said Langstraat. “We have no doubt that some of those were exacerbated through this pandemic, so one of our recommendations moving forward is certainly that attention be paid to making sure supports are in place for kids as we come back to school.”

He said continued mask usage would make for an intriguing discussion, as there were fewer reports of colds and the flu and reduced absenteeism during the pandemic.

“It’s already happening, but we talked about keeping mask-wearing on the radar and even beyond COVID,” said Langstraat. “The decrease in illness in schools, it just makes for an interesting discussion. Should we continue to encourage mask-wearing even after the pandemic to reduce incidents of the flu, for example?”

Scott Saywell, Nanaimo Ladysmith Public Schools’ superintendent and CEO, said the COVID-19 rapid response team became a “common central repository for information and a really great connection” to public health officials and the B.C. Ministry of Education, and is glad the team will be continuing its duties.

The superintendend said processes evolved from the first detection of the virus at an SD68 school.

“I think the first [exposures] were very concerning to staff, students and families,” said Saywell. “As we learned more about this virus and understood that transmission was really low at schools and we were able to keep those numbers of transmissions low, with all of the protocols we have in place, I think we got a little more used to dealing with it and schools would be more understanding that this is just a part of the environment we live in now.”

The ministry said the rapid response teams “were instrumental in enhancing school safety and quickly addressing COVID-19 exposures” this past spring. Additional duties this year will include “supporting school district activities focused on addressing pandemic impacts on learning and student and staff mental health,” the statement from the ministry added.

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