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On Monday afternoon, photos and videos started circulating on social media, showing what appeared to be high school students from Howard S. Billings, crammed together in the cafeteria, sitting shoulder-to-shoulder and not practicing social distancing.
Many parents shared their frustration and outrage online and questioned the school’s health and safety protocols, which they said Billings had assured them would be implemented.
“My daughter’s not even in school at the moment because I’m not going to force her to sit in the cafeteria side-by-side with all those children,” said Jen Spies-Kirby, whose 13-year-old daughter is in eighth grade at Billings.
Kirby said that students were not allowed to leave school grounds during lunchtime. The scene appeared chaotic in the footage.
Complicating matters was the last-minute announcement that the new cafeteria service provider at the school would only accept contactless payment in lieu of cash. As of Tuesday, the cafeteria service provider was accepting cash.
“It’s definitely not six feet apart. They are better off leaving for lunch than being stuck in the cafeteria. They’re treating them like prisoners,” she said.
Last Friday, September 11, the school sent a letter highlighting some of the safety protocols put in place by the province, including the implementation of student “bubbles.”
The letter explained that because students remain in the same classroom with the same classmates each day, they did not have to social distance but had to remain in their bubbles. In addition they had to maintain a one-metre distance from students outside their bubbles as well as other school staff.
Furthermore, the letter stated that the school was facing an issue with students going outside and not respecting social distancing requirements.
“New directives today permit schools to combine up to three stable class bubbles. Given the flexibility, and with governing board approval, for the remainder of September, students will no longer be permitted to leave the school for the lunch hour,” the letter reads.
Instead, the school said that students would be assigned to different zones in the school where they could have lunch and socialize before returning to their classrooms.
However, according to different accounts online, not all parents received the letter and were not informed of the changes.
Kirby received an email regarding the situation on Monday at 4 p.m. only after the cafeteria incident transpired.
“I told my daughter that if they had to eat in the cafeteria, to do so, but they wouldn’t even accept money, so my daughter couldn’t even buy her lunch,” said Kirby.
“I picked her up for lunch and brought her out. But I can’t be doing that every day. I’m having a baby in two months,” she continued.
The email that was sent out on Monday afternoon indicated that while the situation was hectic, and the students were not happy, the school was prioritizing safety over comfort.
“With our grade 10 and 11 students here only half the time, we have approximately 360 students scheduled for lunch at any one time,” the email read.
“The cafeteria has been reorganized so that students sit together with their classmates – their safe bubbles are maintained. Tables are spaced apart, and several have even been moved outside the cafeteria to ensure that no more than 250 students are even in the cafeteria at the same time,” the email continued.
According to the email, teachers escorted their classes to the cafeteria and helped students find their assigned tables. After finishing their meals, students were permitted to move either to the lower gym, the auditorium foyer, or the outdoor classrooms.
However, on Tuesday evening, Billings sent out another email stating that students were once again allowed to leave school grounds during their lunchtime.
“Due to overwhelming parental anxiety and the fact that students have worked hard to demonstrate that that they are willing to act responsibly and follow social distancing and mask-wearing guidelines, we are happy to announce that we are returning to our regular lunch rules,” it read.
The Eastern Door contacted the school’s director general Rob Butters (New Frontiers School Board) but by the time the paper went to press, no response had been received.
Kirby said that although she is glad students are allowed to leave during their lunchtime, she feels the situation was not handled correctly.
“I kind of think it’s ridiculous how they go one day to the next and change their minds like that. And give us no notice. They waited till the end of the day to tell us that information,” said Kirby.
“I really don’t know who’s in charge over there, but they should get some new management skills,” she said.