It’s safe to assume that all school districts across Canada will have a fluid plan of returning to the classroom in September.

School District 58, which covers Merritt and Princeton, is certainly no different.

In sitting down with SD58 Superintendent Stephen McNiven, it is clear that there is a well-designed and detailed plan in place, though there is a sense that it could change day-to-day.

McNiven said that on Aug. 10 the school district received a template for their plan from the provincial government, one they can work off of and manipulate to fill the needs of our small community.

“It’s going to provide us some reporting information that will help lead our planning. And we’ll submit that to the Ministry of Education.”

McNiven said that he has been meeting with all of the district’s stakeholder groups, the union partners, the Abroginal Advisory Council. Though generally, the plan is to follow the rules laid out by Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry.

“There is lots of planning going on right now, but what she has told us is our template.”

McNiven said that in general, SD58’s plan is to build on what was already in place in June. That means keeping physical distance, maintaining health and safety measures, and lowering group sizes.

Though September’s school look will be different due to all students returning to the classroom. In McNiven and his staff’s minds, the main difference and impactful change will be the use of the new grouping system, or ‘cohort groups.’

“These will be their learning groups,” said McNiven. “So at the elementary level, we have to structure our schools around learning groups of 60, and at the high school level, we have to structure something around groups of 120.

“So how do we manage our buildings, and our learning, keeping those bubbles in place is really what we’re working on.”

McNiven added, however, that these numbers are strictly a guideline. The Merritt school system has much different needs than a school system the size of one in say, Vancouver.

Therefore, the option for smaller cohort group sizes is certainly a possibility.

“If you look at an elementary school, and we have all of our students back, really what they learn with typically is a class size of 20, 25, or 30. But what the limit allows groups and schools to do, is work together on occasion. But you wouldn’t want to do anything where you have say, three classes working together.”

McNiven said that at the high school level, it gets much more complicated due to school size. Merritt Secondary School’s website says that it serves around 600 students in total.

“A lot of work is going into making it work,” said McNiven.

“We’re working on creating a schedule that is going to reduce the contacts that kids have.”

In terms of the cohort groups, McNiven said that there are two factors that have to be considered. One is that when students are within their cohort group, the focus has to be on not having any physical contact.

“That physical distancing, you still want to do to the best of your ability, but there’s some relaxations on that within the cohort group.”

At the high school level, the school district is relying on the words of Dr. Bonnie Henry. What she has been telling staff is that there is a crucial need to make sure there will be the two metre physical distancing between both students and staff when they are outside of their bubble.

Outside of the bubble, masks were recently mandated in high-traffic areas, including buses and hallways.

“Outside of their bubble, or even outside of the school for that matter, there needs to be a trust. But the expectation is that a greater emphasis is placed on the physical distancing.

“We’re going to do our best with the things that we can work with.”

McNiven said there are still questions, and will continue to be throughout the year surely, as to how these guidelines will work: for example, how to stagger breaks.

What do we do during break time? Well, let’s stagger our breaks, as much as possible, so that the groups of kids out may be less and may even just be down to their cohort group if possible.”

Usually, Merritt Secondary School has just one lunch break. McNiven said their is a possibility of MSS running two or three different breaks, so less kids are in the halls at the same time.

“We can have some flexibility throughout the day, that would help us do that, for sure.”

He did add, however, that if the crossing over of bubbles occurs during the breaks, that physical distancing must still be strictly enforced.

In terms of class sizes, McNiven said that they should remain relatively stable as they were before. At the high school, class sizes are mostly limited to thirty, though in some subjects, like shop, they can be much smaller.

“Those are the maximums,” said McNiven, who added that sizes usually range between 18 and 30.

“Typically, in our district, our class size average is lower than the provincial average.”

At the elementary school level, the maximum is just 20 in kindergarden, 22 in primary, and 30 at the intermediate levels.

Though sending students back to school was voluntary in June, September’s return to the classroom is something for all students.

“The voluntary state is gone,” said McNiven. “Parents have to choose, will they send their kids to school face-to-face? If they choose not to do that, then they will have to enroll them in some kind of home schooling.”

The Herald will have more on SD58’s return to the classroom next week.