Vigilance, resilience and adjustment are key words that sum up the first few months of the 2020-21 school year for the Algonquin Lakeshore Catholic School Board Director of Education.

David DeSantis spoke with about a year where the education sector got thrown for a loop back in March with the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic and how it’s continued to affect schools today, with another shutdown in place.

This week, Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced schools across much of the province, including those in the ALCDSB jurisdiction in Hastings-Prince Edward, would be shuttered until Jan. 11 for elementary students and Jan. 25 for secondary students, as part of a lockdown that would start at 12:01 a.m. on Boxing Day.

DeSantis stated the work immediately began following the shutdown of schools in March to hastily get remote learning up and running to help keep students engaged with their education, before getting down to work on a return-to-school plan in the summer.

“The challenge was making sure on a daily basis that we were highly vigilant and that our buildings and catholic learning communities were safe,” said DeSantis.

Having gone and visited the schools at various points, DeSantis noted that the vast majority of rules have been followed when it comes to mask-wearing and physical distancing, which has been a large part of the reason why case numbers are relatively low across the board.

“Any cases that have reared their ugly heads in schools – and there have been few – have largely been contracted outside the school by either an extended relative or a spouse partner that contracted it somewhere else and then gave it to either the husband or wife who is a teacher in one of our schools or the children.”

“Our schools have been great at protecting our broader family for sure.”

DeSantis gave kudos to an “extensive team” of board employees, led by retiring superintendent Terri Slack, for their efforts in ensuring principals, teachers and support staff members in all schools across the approximately 16,000 sq ft. ALCDSB jurisdiction were following correct health and safety protocols.

“Staff and students are tired, especially our staff, but the morale is quite high,” he indicated.

“We do have a percentage of staff that are stressed out and can’t wait for the holidays, because this has been a burden on them in terms of their own health and welfare.”

The virtual school for elementary students has also been a success so far and DeSantis credited Principal Dan Finn and Vice-Principal Casey Wells for making the transition for students accessing it seamless.

Speaking to in-person secondary school, he noted that attendance rates and credit accumulation rates have been great to this point.

Part of this success has been the octomester system, which is now four courses deep, which has given students and teachers more of an opportunity to develop a rapport with each other, despite early concern about student morale and an initial pushback from a few parents and students to the rejigging.

“One of the unintended benefits of having the same kids, all day, every day…is our teachers really got to know the other students, as opposed to the usual 75-minute turnovers when you have one class after another,” DeSantis explained.

“The relationship-building has been fantastic, discipline problems have been minimized and the teachers and students have really come a long way and the teachers and students have really come a long way in working together through this crisis.”

Heading into 2021 with an extended holiday break, DeSantis reminds students, parents, school staff and the general public, that the ALCDSB must continue to be “agents” of the Ministry of Education and Hastings-Prince Edward Public Health and follow all necessary directives

“While we may either agree or disagree with them, the reality is, we take our marching orders from them when it comes to public health and safety,” he stated.

This means all students going to remote learning for 28 days in order to slow the spread of the coronavirus and lower the number of cases in the region.

At the same time, the Director said he is not overlooking all the residual benefits that school brings, including social interaction, hands-on learning and overall healthier well-being.

“It provides for a learning environment where they can really aspire to meet and exercise their gifts and talents,” DeSantis outlined.

He added the kids wanted to come back to school and they did whatever they had to to make sure that they were in that environment.

“Whether it was being cohorted in a class or going out on lunch break in elementary and they have to go to a certain section of the yard with their classmates, they’re following the rules and procedures.”

“They’re telling us that this is important for them. They want to make sure their classmates are safe and that school is the best place for them to be to learn, progress and achieve and to become successful citizens and contributors to our world.”

DeSantis reminds people to not travel far destinations within the province over the holidays and to be diligent with protocols to curb cases until the lockdown measures are lifted.

In addition to the pandemic response, DeSantis stated they will continue with action on its five-year strategic plan and themed pastoral plan, implemented this year.