The percentage of students returning to school in School District 58 has been higher than the provincial average, according to Superintendent Stephen McNiven and Assistant Superintendent Jameel Aziz.

While BC’s school districts have reported a return rate of approximately 85-percent, Merritt and Princeton area schools are sitting at approximately 91-percent.

Though accurate attendance numbers are still being worked on at a couple of locations, the high attendance rate was a bit of a pleasant surprise to district staff.

A survey was put out to students’ families the week before classes started, which originally indicated around an 85-percent return rate.

Around ten-percent of respondents had indicated that they were still unsure.

“I know that there are still people out there who are undecided, and are not yet ready to be fully committed,” said Aziz.

McNiven said that so far the return to school has seen a positive response from both staff and students.

“And I think (Aziz) would echo that,” said McNiven. “We’re pleased with the number of families that chose to send students back. We’re pleased with our health and safety protocols, and it looks to be the case that they are supporting our students and staff well.”

Aziz said that he took a tour of Merritt Secondary School during the first week of class, and got a very positive vibe.

He admitted that they had been expecting a few “bumps and hiccups,” but they had actually seen less than expected.

McNiven also walked around the high school on the Friday of the first week, and said that he spoke to around 20 students.

“It was overwhelmingly positive. From their perspective, they’re pleased to be back at school.

“It’s quite a change in how learning is taking place, especially at the high school from a scheduling point of view.”

Currently, the grade eight and nine students are taking two courses, while grades ten-twelve are learning one subject a day.

This particular change has helped students to be able to stay within their cohort groups, as have the separate entrances put in place for differing grades.

Aziz said that it is easiest to maintain the cohort groups at the elementary level, where class sizes are the smallest.

Throughout this pandemic, it has often been brought up that small children might not be able to understand the safety measures that they need to take. In Merritt’s elementary system, McNiven and Aziz said that staff have been more than happy to work with the children to ensure theirs, and others, health and safety.

When the Herald asked about staff’s reaction to returning to the classroom, both McNiven and Aziz said that it seems to echo the students’ positive responses.

“We’re a people business,” said Aziz. “So most of us do this work because we care about kids. We care about helping them positively grow, and it’s just nice to have them a little closer.”

McNiven said that what basically has been the motto among administrators is to “start small” and “get our feet on the ground.”

“We want to make sure that our students and our staff feel safe and supported, and then expand from there.”

One example of how the district plans to expand is by eventually returning to the hot lunch programs for all schools, some of which still do not have them back.

As for available PPE on campus, including sanitizer, masks, and handwashing stations, Aziz said that students have overwhelming been complying in utilizing them.

“Most students are coming in with their own masks, but we have a large supply of them available if they don’t. Sometimes people forget or misplace them.”

So far Aziz, said that he has not heard any complaints from students saying that they refuse to wear a mask.

Masks are mandatory in high-traffic areas, like hallways and buses. Though they are not mandatory in the classroom, Aziz said that he estimates around one-quarter of the students wear one in the classroom.

“It seems that parents have given instruction to their students, about what they would like to see in terms of health and safety. So far compliance has really not been an issue.”

McNiven said that he has spoken to a couple of the district’s bus drivers, and while there have been a couple of occasions where a student has had to be asked or reminded, the request has been well received.

In terms of what paths School District 58 may take in the future, those plans are a little hazy. Though McNiven said the possibility is open to more remote learning, and determining exactly when they see students.

“The question is how do we support their remote learning, how do we support classrooms and teachers in doing that work as well, or take that on with additional staffing.”