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KNOX – Tiny rural schools look good during the pandemic

(Image: Mel Rothenburger)

SAANICH POLICE caught a drunk driver doing more than twice the speed limit outside Campus View elementary on the first day of school.

For real, they picked off the truck doing 76 km/h in a 30 zone on Gordon Head Road at 2:15 p.m. Thursday.

As if parents don’t have enough to worry about. As it is, they’re squirming over the back-to-school question, weighing the possibility of COVID-19 versus the probability that, without in-class education, their children will be left behind. (Don’t forget this spring’s meme: “Twenty years from now this country will be run by people who were home-schooled by day-drinkers.”)

It makes a small school, one where low enrolment mitigates risk, sound attractive, doesn’t it?

Yes ,it does, says Jim Baron. He’s the principal of Captain Meares Elementary Secondary in Tahsis, the smallest school in the smallest district on Vancouver Island.

On the surface, Captain Meares, with just 25 students rattling around a building designed for 400, seems a prime example of the declining enrolment that has caused so much hand-wringing in the forestry and fishing towns of Vancouver Island over the past couple of decades.

As student numbers withered, sometimes to single digits, it seemed inevitable when schools vanished in places such as Woss, Echo Bay, Youbou, Union Bay and Quatsino; it was like watching a good dog grow old, knowing that one day you’d have to take Rover for that last car ride to the vet’s.

The thing is, Captain Meares is doing fine. Its graduation rate is high. So is the rate at which grads go on to post-secondary education. High-speed internet gives students access to courses previously denied those in remote communities.

And, during COVID, that low enrolment is a bonus. It lowers the risk of transmission.

“We barely make a cohort,” says Baron, referring to those learning groups — a maximum of 60 elementary students, or 120 at the secondary level — in which B.C. schools are now divided.

That means that, existing in a single bubble, Captain Meares staff and students don’t have to adhere to the strict social-distancing or mask-wearing rules as those in city schools.

It gets a little complicated when someone comes in from the outside to, say, service the school’s boiler. Bubble-preserving protocols must be maintained then. For the same reason, the school has cancelled some popular events, such as a music night at which parents and students often perform together, and a lunch at which food students feed the community. For the most part, though, school life is proceeding as normal.

Of course, in an isolated place such as Tahsis, population 250, normal means kids who want to play basketball must white-knuckle their way over the 62-kilometre gravel road to Gold River to join the high school team there.

Those are the accommodations that must be made in the Vancouver Island West School District, where the entire student population is one-third that of Colwood’s Royal Bay Secondary. (How lightly populated is the district? In 2018 the Ha-Shilth-Sa newspaper described how, on a whim, supporters of the only Grade 12 student in isolated Kyuquot decided to invite Justin Trudeau to the boy’s graduation ceremony. The prime minister didn’t come, but he did send a certificate congratulating the teen for his perseverance.)

On the other hand, normal also means having just nine students in the Language Arts class Baron taught Friday. That leaves plenty of one-on-one time, which is good, because the students in the class range from Grades 7 to 12, with individual needs to suit.

Likewise, there’s lots of room for individual instruction at Port Renfrew Elementary, where two fulltime teachers oversee just 21 students in kindergarten through Grade 5. No worries about there being enough room in the gym during PE class, notes principal Cory Meausette.

And with students drawn almost exclusively from the Pacheedaht First Nation, it’s a comfort to vulnerable elders to have the local kids confined inside a small bubble.

Conversely, though, there is concern about Port Renfrew’s bubble being burst by students who bus to middle and high school in Sooke.

That’s the thing about coastal communities.

There’s a lot of boating and busing. Note that of the 18 students expected at Saturna Island’s school this year, almost half are enrolled in a nature program that draws teens from neighbouring islands. As for the Saturna kids themselves, they stay on the island until Grade 5, before commuting to Pender and Salt Spring islands for later grades.

At least they don’t have to worry about drunks doing 76 in a school zone. The one caught Thursday drew a $368 fine, a 90-day licence suspension and 30-day vehicle impoundment. Some people learn the hard way.

© 2020 Copyright Times Colonist
About Mel Rothenburger (7715 Articles)
ArmchairMayor.ca is a forum about Kamloops and the world. It has more than one million views. Mel Rothenburger is the former Editor of The Daily News in Kamloops, B.C. (retiring in 2012), and past mayor of Kamloops (1999-2005). At ArmchairMayor.ca he is the publisher, editor, news editor, city editor, reporter, webmaster, and just about anything else you can think of. He is grateful for the contributions of several local columnists. This blog doesn't require a subscription but gratefully accepts donations to help defray costs.

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