EMSB creating long-term 'bubble' groups of students for fall -- and you can't pick your own

A virtual meeting of the English Montreal School Board's parents' committee on Monday night provided lots of details on how back-to-school will take place in the era of COVID-19.

For example, elementary students will be divided up into small "pod" groups within classes, assigned by the school, in order to limit infection, said Evelyne Alfonsi, an assistant director general at the EMSB.

The province's education ministry had announced the idea of student pods earlier this summer, and the board was able to provide a little more information on how they'll be implemented, though some parents said it wasn't enough.

The province had said pods would be up to six students each, but there was some confusion in the meeting over whether the EMSB was planning to go with six students per pod or a smaller number.

One question the board is expecting, Alfonsi said, is whether kids or parents will be able to pick their own pods. The answer is no.

"I do understand that students want to be with their friends," she said.

But logistically, trying to divvy up classrooms in a way that suits all the students' social preferences would be too difficult, she said -- and it's not the best idea for their education anyway. The groups won't be random, but they'll be picked using other factors.

"We want to create pods that are fair...and are not 'clique-ish,'" said Alfonsi, and which respect the strengths of different students to create a good mix.

The students within a pod will be able to be physically closer to each other than to other students or the teacher. This means that if one of those students gets COVID-19 symptoms, other students from his or her pod could also be sent home.

Alfonsi said she doesn't know yet whether entire "bubbles" of students would need to be sent home if one becomes sick -- or if someone in the family of one of the students is sick -- but that this is not something the board will ever be able to answer definitively, as those decisions will be up to public health authorities.

Parents aren't likely to get many of the answers they want until shortly before students head back.

In the first week of August, the school board will sent out a newsletter summing up what was said in the meeting, especially outlining how classrooms will be set up, including capacity guidelines and how the pods will work.

More information will be available later in the month.

Alfonsi said all subjects will be taught. For music, "the theory will take place at school, while the practice will take place at home," she said.

There will be no sharing of instruments or playing instruments at school.

Gym classes, whenever possible, will take place outdoors, she said. If they must be indoors, kids will be doing "activities where social distancing can take place." Equipment will be sterilized between each use. There is a consultant working on phys-ed-related questions, Alfonsi said.

High-school students won't be put in pods and will have a different set of safety measures. There were fewer details discussed about students in this age group.

Hundreds of parents tried to join the meeting and there appeared to be some capacity problems at one point.

Parents have complained that the board's plans are too vague and are coming too close to the beginning of the school year. 

Watch the video above for a report on parents' concerns.


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