In this conversation with Rita Tsiotsikas, Principal, Winchester Junior and Senior Public School, talks about reopening plans of her school, the challenges and concerns it faces and how they are preparing to deal with those.
The Corner – Welcome Rita. Thank you for offering to speak to us. Could you please start of by introducing yourself to our readers.
Rita – Hi I’m Rita. I am the principle of Winchester school and I’ve been at this school for seven years.
The Corner – With the reopening scheduled for the September 8, how well equipped do you think our public school systems are given the current situation and how is Winchester school preparing to reopen?
Rita – We’ve been preparing to open by following what the Toronto Public Health and what the TDSB (Toronto District School Board) has set out for us and we are not starting till September 15th not the 8th, the school year has been pushed a week. So I think we’re on our way to being prepared, I mean we’ve put in place a number of precautions – windows are being opened, we’re spending as much outdoor time as possible kids are wearing masks, we’ve got assigned bathrooms and working in times where kids are washing their hands, staff have sanitizing kits with them, so I think we are well on our way.
The Corner – Rita, you said you are opening windows and there is much more ventilation to the space but how do you think you will manage with all that as we get into winter?
Rita – Well the windows are going to have to be open and you are right it’s going to be more difficult to get outside but the kids do have scheduled outdoor time where they can have breaks from their class. I know Toronto Public Health recently said that we could use fans as long as there directional pointing up just to circulate the air that way, and I know there’s been lots of work done on schools kind of getting their ventilation system prepared and in the heritage building we actually have air scrubbers on each floor, large metal air cleaners because we have had them there since last year or actually a couple of years because of the construction that was going on.
The Corner– Winchester is not the only school you have worked at we assume, do you feel there are certain neighbourhoods and communities or schools in certain neighborhoods and communities, would find it more challenging to deal with this situation?
Rita– I do worry about, let’s say our community for example. Over here in apartments buildings for example there are some families that can take their kids home at lunch time or that kind of thing, and we have to use the elevators which is a challenge with you know two people per elevator etc. It takes forever to get down to the bottom. So I guess families that live in single dwelling homes probably would find it a little easier they could have their kids come home and back to school on time and more safely and our school is French immersion so we get kids that come from all over, it’s not just the local community, so there are kids coming on busses, so yes it is going to be a challenge.
The Corner – When it comes to reopening what are your major concerns regarding health and safety?
Rita – My concerns are many, like how are we social distancing little people that want to be you know near each other, that are going to find it hard not to hug a friend or go out at recess and try to socially distance or even you know using equipment like basketballs or anything like that, to do gym. You know we are encouraged to kind of sanitize everything, which we are going to do to our absolute best, but those are my worries right now.
The Corner– And do you think certain grades pose a bigger challenge for you as a teaching staff?
Rita – Yes, so I would imagine somebody in SK (senior kindergarten) sitting at a desk while they are used to sitting on a carpet with friends and playing, is going to find it a little challenging. We are not using lockers or cubbies so all their stuff is going to be with them you know like it’s tucked under the chair or something like that I think that’s going to mean smaller spaces for our little ones.
The Corner – RIta what would be the process if you find out that one of your students have even a minor symptom, maybe even a small cough or a runny nose, what would be the protocol for that?
Rita – So what the Toronto Public Health and what the TDSB has asked us to do is if there is for any reason for example the kid has asthma or something like that or has seasonal allergies, we still notifying the parent and we have an isolation room.
The Corner – What do you think could have been done better from the government’s part with the reopening plan do you think there are things the government could have added or could have done in a different way to ensure a safer environment?
Rita – Probably the smaller classrooms. Reduce the number of students.
I think right now you know just like Rose Avenue and a few of the other schools in the neighbourhood we have construction going on, so there is some hoarding in the classrooms so it’s making it a little bit smaller maybe by a metre or so not significant but still enough to space kids out as much as possible, I know that grade 1-3 we have 20 kids in a classroom and because of the Learning Opportunity Index in our middle school our classrooms are nice and small anywhere from 18 – 19 so that’s not going to be a problem, it’s just the other classrooms that we have that maybe have upto 27 kids, we are going to obviously look at other spaces in the building like libraries and our cafeteria that is not being used right now to kind of spread those kids out but you know having maybe a little bit of a smaller classroom like 15 kids would have been ideal, just a little bit easier to move them around.
The Corner – Prior to reopening have you been in touch with the students and their parents, have they shared any of their concerns?
Rita – I was hoping this would be part of our conversation today. We are reaching out to families that are just transitioning to our school like all the wonderful Rose Avenue kids that I love and I want them over here. Contacting them over the summer is difficult because they are not technically part of our school, we don’t have access to their phone numbers yet but other families that have been here for the last couple of years, absolutely. We use classroom dojo here, so parents are dojo messaging me all the time asking questions for example I had a few parents reach out and say you know we are in a bubble with these three kids, is there any way that these 3 kids can be in the same room?
For sure we are going to try everything possible to make sure people feel safe. So if let’s say a family says in our neighbourhood we hang around with these 3 or 4 kids, we are going to put those kids together, it just makes sense, I mean if the kids are playing together outside why wouldn’t we have them in the same classroom.
The Corner – What are some of the concerns shared by your staff and as a leader how do you address those concerns and what support do you get from other quarters when you are trying to deal with these things?
Rita – We had a safety community meeting with the teachers and staff last week at the beginning of the week and I also met with the school advisory council and talked with that safety committee meeting about what concerns they may or may not have. I am very fortunate we have got amazing staff here that are really looking forward to coming back and we’ve got PPE that the staff are wearing. They are given a mask and a face shield. Just as long as they understand there is protocol for sanitizing, like I said the teachers have backpacks with a sanitizing kit that means when they meet their kids outside and before they even come in they get a little bit of hand sanitizer, everybody sanitizes their hands and make sure their masks are on then we social distance on the way in. They have got designated spots outside to wait and making sure that staff know if we are in doubt about what’s causing a sore throat or cough etc. then those kids are not even being allowed in the building and we are calling families right away and saying they need to go get checked ASAP.
The Corner – what are some of the things you feel as a community including everybody can do to ensure a better and safer environment in the school, what are some of the things that we can do from our side?
Rita – Make sure that you are going over the protocol that Toronto Public Health laid out, if your child gets up in the morning complaining of symptoms you don’t need to run off and get a covid test you just need to monitor and see where they are and notify the school if they are not feeling well or just following the protocols that we are going to be sending home, as well to make sure that parents feel comfortable and make sure they know where to stand etc. Encourage your kids to physically distance, and if there are families that are concerned, I encourage parents to reach out to us and ask questions and if they want to come in, meet and see what we are doing to make sure kids are safe they are welcome to do it.
The Corner – How are you conveying these information to the families?
Rita – Right now there are a couple of ways we can do it for example new families like I said the Rose Avenue families are not connected to class dojo yet but we are going to be doing school messenger. So through the school messenger we will have a list of things that they need to know for their first day of school
The Corner – Apart from the direct concerns we have regarding the pandemic and safety and what are some of the other concerns parents have, a lot of people are out of work people are trying to shuffle and reschedule their agenda for the day. What are some of the other concerns parents have prior to the reopening?
Rita – Work for sure is one, making sure that they have the technology at home, that they need if we go back to remote learning if something goes wrong in the province, so making sure everybody is connected that way. There have been families that have been worried about getting grocery cards for their families, food, shelter, the regular stuff obviously. It is more kind of what we are doing on our end and the physical space to make sure that the kids are safe.
The Corner – How did the whole virtual learning go for you guys, was it smooth did you have challenges?
Rita – For sure we had challenges, it was getting the technology to kids, getting families connected to the internet when they don’t have internet at home. Making sure those devices arrive to kids on a timely basis was a challenge and then like I said I am so lucky at Winchester we have amazing staff so they organized ways to work together to make sure distanced learning was doable and if let’s say families were struggling getting things done our support staff called them, worked with them, gave them less work or different work. So I think it worked really well, I was really impressed with how our staff pulled together to support families and I love how they were reaching out, calling families and making sure that everybody was okay. Not only are we a school with focus on education we genuinely care about people and make sure that they feel that we understand that everybody is in a panic, everybody is feeling isolated and scared and kids are feeling scared.
The Corner– Is there anything else you would like to add
Rita– It’s been an honour being in this community for the last seven years it, really has. I love the community and hope I retire here to be honest, it is an absolute honour to work here.