Chilliwack’s school childcare program offers respite for essential worker parents

High teacher-to-student ratio, large building all help provide safe environment for students

On any given school day, the hallways of GW Graham are teeming with teenagers, brushing past each other and high-fiving and hugging friends as they move from class to class.

It’s a thought that could make you cringe these days, as the easy transmission of COVID-19 has created a need for physical distancing, and closed schools to its students.

But the education system is still functioning, with teachers, education assistants and administrators all finding ways to connect with their students at home. But at GW Graham, the focus is a little different. A team of dedicated educators have gathered there to find new ways to teach and care for children, with physical distancing in place.

Ten Chilliwack teachers and 45 education assistants are working at delivering educational, grade-appropriate childcare in a fun but physically distant environment. David Manuel, Chilliwack’s Acting Director of Instruction, says the program is one of the first out of the gate in the province, and is doing exceptionally well.

Health and safety for everyone coming into the building is their first and foremost concern, he says, and that’s why they chose GW Graham for the site. It’s a big site, with plenty of large spaces for classes to use safely. They’ve set up an entry and exit point that’s managed by educators, who do a symptom check and then escort the students to their class.

They have even marked the floors of classrooms with green painter’s tape to remind everyone to keep their distance.

Right now there are 20 children registered, and they are aiming for classrooms of three children each. In cases of family groups, they are keeping those children together. That means a class could have a wide range of educational and even physical needs.

It’s much harder to get a younger child to adhere to social distancing, Manuel says, but well worth the effort.

That’s because all of the parents using program to date are essential workers. They can drop off and pickup their children any time through the school day (8 a.m. to 3 p.m.), and they can use the service for as many or as few days as they need. The idea was to help relieve some pressure from essential workers’ families, to assist students with homework to give mom and dad a break, and even to supplement costs of childcare.

READ MORE: COVID-19 essential workers can apply for B.C. pre-school child care

In Chilliwack, they moved ahead with planning as soon as the Ministry of Education made the information about how to run such programs available.

But as Manual explains, the program has also offered an unexpected kind of respite.

He was moved by a message from a mom who used the program, who dropped her children off not so she could go to work or get groceries, but so she could finally get some sleep.

“We hadn’t thought of that,” he says.

It was rewarding feedback for the team, who eagerly jumped at the chance to work with these families. The district put the call out to all staff to ask who would like to be a part of the team.

“We really wanted people to volunteer and take this on,” Manuel says. “And the folks that are there have really embraced it.”

He says staff is finding ways to make connections with the kids, who they may have never taught before. One student who used the program, he says, loves to draw. The teacher they’re matched up is not an art teacher, but has found an online program they can work with together.

“Staff is really trying to be creative, and find really personalized ways to engage the kids,” Manuel says. “And some of it is learning, and some of it is just having an enjoyable day.”

The idea is to send the kids home in a happy state, with some homework done, to ease home life for the essential workers who are taking care of the community.

Initially, 50 families who were identified as health care and emergency response workers were contacted by the school district about the program. Because the program users vary in needs, they are having between six and 11 students in the school each day.

“The teachers and EAs involved there, they are part of something bigger, and it’s really about supporting the front line better,” he adds. He also gives kudos to the planning team, which includes senior administrators Helen Plummer, Justin Moore, Colin Reid, Brenda Callendino, Brenda Point, Chris Reitsma and Noreen Graham.

Soon, they’ll be opening it up to what’s known as Tier 2 families, which includes social service workers. It’s important to support essential work parents, to keep the economy rolling for the future, he adds.

“Many districts are still trying to figure out how to take this on, and this team really embraced the challenge,” he says. “The tone is so positive.”

READ MORE: Chilliwack school bus drivers reach out to sidelined students


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