New Chatham school showcased

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Parents and children explore the new outdoor classroom at St. Angela Merici, a first of its kind for the St. Clair Catholic School Board, which previously only had outdoor spaces for students.

By Jenna Cocullo, Local Journalism Initiative

St. Clair Catholic School Board (SCC) has something to celebrate amid the COVID-19 pandemic and back-to-school complications; the opening of its new state-of-the-art facility. 

On Thursday parents were given tours of St. Angela Merici, a week before kids are planned to head back to class. 

Mayor Darrin Canniff also took a private tour of the new school, and later in the day Chatham-Kent Leamington MPP Rick Nicholls and the Ursline Sisters were scheduled to join.

“This is a wonderful thing for the community,” Canniff said. “It’s fantastic and we’ve entered the 21st century.” 

Mayor Darrin Canniff, right, is eager to ask the teacher a question in the new Grade 1 classroom. With him is Deb Crawford, director of education for the St. Clair Catholic School Board.

The tour was much needed for some parents and guardians who were experiencing anxiety about their children returning to school in an era of social distancing.

“I am anxious and it is very overwhelming. I want to find out how they are planning to keep kids safe if everyone is returning to school,” said mom Lacey LeClair before she took her tour. “We only sent them back because we have work and also kids need this for the sake of their mental health.” 

Deb Crawford, director of education for SCC said final numbers for parents returning to school were still being crunched, but preliminary data suggest around 90 per cent are coming back.

Some schools have higher return rates than others, according to Crawford. St. Angela Merici is one of the schools with very strong returns to in-person learning.

“Parents are enthusiastic about this one,” Crawford said. “People really love the school and are feeling encouraged. After the tour they are feeling better and more secure.”

Some of the more prominent features in the building are the large gym which can hold two classes at a time and has a full-size stage. 

Siblings Wesley and Ella Cronk are eager to join their friends in Grades 1 and 2. They said they are most excited about the big gym which can hold two classrooms at a time. But Ella is most excited to see performances on the pop-up stage.

Crawford said the first few weeks will see alternative gym classes, such as outdoor activities, to enhance social distancing. 

Another favourite feature for parents was the natural lighting filtering through the floor-to-ceiling windows in the open concept areas.

St. Angela Merici also has an outside classroom to allow children to enjoy nature while learning. Other SCC schools have some outdoor spaces but this is the first full outdoor classroom for the board.

The new school also comes at a time when there are new measures in place to keep kids safe from COVID-19.

Crawford said SCC will be doing a staggered back-to-school day. But the board has not released the dates yet.

“We know there’s going to be confusion at the beginning,” Crawford said. “So that’s why we’re advocating for a gradual return to school to be able to work on those routines, get the kids in but not everybody at one time, and get the teachers settled.”

Teachers are ready to go online in the event that a school has to be shut down from an outbreak. 

Crawford said should a kid contract COVID-19, it is more likely the cohort would have to stay home rather than shut the whole school, but that decision would ultimately be in the hands of the medical officer of health.

“We want to minimize the effect on the cohort. The last thing we want to do is shut a school down,”Crawford said.

There is also a process underway to hire more nurses to assist with screenings.

By the end of the tour the majority of parents surveyed said they were reassured that their children could safely return to school. Only one parent on the tour said they might opt for virtual learning because they fear kids won’t be able to maintain social distancing practices in such a large school 

“We are feeling pretty good about back-to-school,” said dad Steve Cronk. “I don’t think they would let kids go back if it wasn’t safe. And with this school in particular it’s beautifully laid out and nice and clean.”

The day care at St. Angela Merici is almost ready to go. Left, Tonya Walker supervisor, and Sue Jennings, director of Ridge Kids Services.

Child care centre almost ready to go

The child care centre attached to the building will also be following enhanced protocols to keep kids safe.

“We’re excited to be coming and the opportunity to move our daycare from Ridgetown to Chatham in a large site,” said Sue Jennings, director of Ridge K.I.D.S. services.

The centre now accommodates infant, toddler, and preschool care along with before- and after-school programs for the students. 

Jennings said there is no facility quite like it in Chatham-Kent and a lot of thought was put into the design.

“A lot of daycares were retrofitted into schools. We went into schools and they retrofitted classrooms, so this is the first one that I know of that’s been built specifically with child care in it,” she said. 

They are licensed for 161 for the daycare area. Jennings said for the most part the infant and school-aged programs are full. There is still room in the preschool and toddler programs. 

To help prevent the contraction and spread of COVID-19 each child will have their own special bins with their own play toys. Every classroom is self contained with storage and washrooms.

“They don’t worry about having to go outside of the classroom to get anything.”

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