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Ontario high school students grapple with possible graduation ceremony cancellations

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TORONTO —
Urmila Persaud spent months picturing herself walking across a stage to collect her high-school diploma in front of friends and family.

But the COVID-19 pandemic has replaced that vision with a big question mark as schools and boards across Canada grapple with how to handle graduation ceremonies because of COVID-19 restrictions.

For soon-to-be graduates like Persaud, this typically joyous milestone is fraught with uncertainty about whether they’ll get a chance to celebrate the end of their high school chapter, and the murky future that lies ahead.

“I imagined and dreamed about my graduation for months,” the 17-year-old from Richmond Hill, Ont., said. “And before March break, I had no idea that might be the last time I see my class in person.”

It’s not just graduation — Persaud had imagined moving into a dorm and starting university come September, but that picture has been supplanted by questions about whether she’ll have to take her first post-secondary courses online from her parents’ home.

But the ceremony is a particular sore spot — a final hurrah with her tight-knit class of just 17 students.

“We pretty much grew up together,” she said. “Our graduation would be our last time together — all together — in person. And now that might not happen.”

The French-language board to which Persaud’s school belongs cancelled graduation dances but has yet to make a formal decree on graduation ceremonies, a spokeswoman said.

A spokeswoman for Ontario’s education minister said a decision on such ceremonies would be left with the school boards, and the province’s largest — the Toronto District School Board — announced Friday that all of its graduation ceremonies would be either cancelled or postponed “until at least the end of the school year.”

“As there are still many unknowns, the rescheduling of postponed events will be handled at the school level, depending on local circumstances,” reads a letter to parents from TDSB director of education John Malloy.

In Prince Edward Island, meanwhile, Education Minister Brad Trivers said graduation ceremonies at the province’s 15 secondary schools will be held the week of June 22, along with other end-of-year activities.

And a spokeswoman said that if commencement ceremonies in New Brunswicks go ahead, they will be different than usual as the Department of Education looks for “positive alternatives to traditional graduation ceremonies that would meet the restrictions recommended by Public Health.”

So too for 17-year-old Trinity Parchment of Barrie, Ont., who learned on Friday that her school wouldn’t be holding a graduation ceremony, but would try to do something to mark the occasion online.

“But it just takes away the whole idea,” she said. “My friends and I were planning on decorating our caps and just making it a whole thing. It’s really upsetting. It’s like one moment, you’re just getting an extra long March break. And then the next moment, everything’s cancelled.”

Parchment said that while her grades have gone up since classes moved online — something she attributes to a lack of distractions — the school experience has gotten far harder.

“I don’t get to wake up and have purpose. You know what I mean?” she said. “Like, I don’t wake up excited for something new, excited to see my friends. I just wake up to wake up, and it’s sad.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 3, 2020.

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Paintball and obstacle course businesses may supervise students learning online

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Some students may bounce back into school work this fall in unexpected locations — trampoline parks and laser tag courses.

With some parents increasingly nervous about sending their children to school during the COVID-19 pandemic, some enterprising businesses with warehouse-sized spaces are offering an unconventional alternative.

Rachael McIntosh, marketing co-ordinator for Calgary’s InjaNation, said the business is exploring the idea of supervising students during school days when classes resume in September.

Parents could return to work, children would be exposed to much smaller groups of people and the kids could burn off energy in the 55,000-square-foot facility’s trampoline park and obstacle courses, she said.

“The whole idea of this is to offer a safe option to parents who need it,” she said. “It’s not to make money. It’s not to go against the school.”

Students would register in the distance learning option at their usual school, then bring a laptop or portable device to InjaNation, she said. There, staff would supervise them and tutors would come in to help with any questions they have about their online lessons.

If they follow the model used for summer camps, the business would group the kids into cohorts of nine and keep the groups separate, she said. It would give children the opportunity to socialize in a larger space.

Although the company is still sorting out the details, McIntosh said they’re looking at charging between $1,000 and $1,200 a month per student.

Laser City, which runs spacious laser tag and paintball facilities in Edmonton and Calgary, is considering a similar offering, co-owner Rob Davy said on Tuesday.

Through trade associations, he saw similar businesses in the U.S. offering the service. Some schools in that country resume classes in August.

Davy said his 17,000-square-foot locations could accommodate about 30 elementary students on weekdays. After talking to parents who enrolled their children in online summer camps with Laser City, Davy said many feel unsafe sending their children back to school while COVID-19 continues to spread.

“We’re not at all pretending that we are teachers,” he said. “We’re not trying to replace the teachers or anything like that. We are trying to give the assistance that parents would be giving.”

Davy said students would have to be registered in online learning with their usual school. The business does not want public schools to lose any funding, he said.

Parents also tell him they think their children will be more co-operative with online learning when someone else is supervising them.

Programs not endorsed by Alberta Education

Advocacy group Support Our Students Alberta (SOS) brought attention to the phenomenon of private school supervision by posting some program advertisements on social media on Monday.

Colin Aitchison, press secretary to Education Minister Adriana LaGrange, said businesses offering alternative locations for students to participate in online learning are not endorsed by Alberta Education.

“Public, separate, independent and charter schools are required to follow our robust school re-entry plan and its accompanying public health guidelines, and we would encourage parents to have their students either attend Alberta schools in person or participate in their distance learning programs from a safe learning environment that parents have confidence in, such as their homes,” Aitchison said in a Tuesday statement.

NDP education critic Sarah Hoffman said she’s unsurprised businesses are being innovative to offer options as parents balance their careers with concerns about their children’s safety.

She said the offerings prove there are spaces available, in businesses, libraries, churches and community centres, that the government could use to better space out students and prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“Why don’t we actually take the little thread of what they’re offering, which is more safety and abiding by what are currently the recommendations of the chief medical officer of health, and find ways to make that accessible for all students, not just those whose parents have thousands of dollars that they can afford to pay every month,” Hoffman said.

Mock classroom shows challenge of distancing

On Tuesday, Hoffman held a press conference in Edmonton’s Federal Building, where the Opposition created a mock classroom to demonstrate the challenges of physically distancing students in schools.

Education critic Sarah Hoffman staged this demonstration, showing what classrooms could look like in the fall if classes are not capped. 1:41

Provincial standards say new classrooms should be built with 80 square metres of usable space to accommodate students and furniture. With desks and tables for 30 students arranged in a taped-off area, the desks were less than one metre apart.

Public health guidelines say people should stay at least two metres away from others to prevent spreading COVID-19.

The UCP government has allotted $10 million for reusable masks, hand sanitizer and other protective equipment for schools. School boards should use savings in reserves to pay for any additional needs to adapt to the pandemic, the education minister has said.

The government has said its school re-opening plan is endorsed by Alberta’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw and the College of Alberta School Superintendents.

Aitchison called the NDP’s mock classroom a “stunt” and said the Opposition’s competing school plan is unfeasible.

Class sizes in Alberta have risen steadily during the last 15 years. Some teachers report 40 or more students in some of their core high school classes.

A mock up classroom put together by the Opposition NDP shows desks for 30 students in an 80 square metre classroom are less than a metre apart. The mock classroom did not include shelves, a teacher’s desk or other furniture. Public health recommendations say people should stay at least two metres apart to prevent transmission of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. (Nathan Gross/CBC)

Edmonton junior high teacher Renee Englot said she has 35 students registered in her Grade 9 class next year, and her room is smaller than 80 square metres.

“I worry that students and parents and members of the public in general may have a false impression of what school’s going to look like in September because the government keeps using the term physical distancing,” she said. “It is impossible to physically distance in a classroom without a cap on class size.”

Heather Quinn, president of Edmonton Public Teachers local 37, also called on the government to invest more money into re-opening schools. Class sizes should be capped for student and staff safety, and boards need more money to pay more teachers, caretakers and buy protective equipment and cleaning supplies, she said.

“COVID-19 is a public health problem in public education that requires a public solution,” she said.



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COVID-19 on P.E.I.: What’s happening Tuesday, Aug. 11

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Health PEI is hiring additional staff for multiple health-care service roles in preparation of a second wave of COVID-19. 

Harness racing fans on P.E.I. are being warned not to make plans to attend the annual Gold Cup and Saucer race this year in person, unless they have a reservation. 

MLAs on P.E.I.’s standing committee on education and economic growth want top education officials to answer some questions about the province’s back-to-school plan.

The Atlantic bubble has given tourism operators on P.E.I. a much-needed boost, Tourism Minister Matthew MacKay said in an interview with CBC News: Compass host Louise Martin.

Post-secondary students from outside the Atlantic bubble have begun arriving on P.E.I., and Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Heather Morrison has outlined some of the details for ensuring their safe arrival.

Health PEI chief of nursing Marion Dowling says P.E.I. is catching up on elective surgeries postponed in the early weeks of the pandemic.

Morrison and Dowling were speaking at the regular weekly provincial pandemic briefing.

P.E.I. rugby player Ellen Murphy says she is excited to get back to training with other players as part of the Charlottetown Rugby Football Club. (Tony Davis/CBC)

Initial COVID-19 tests on Canadian Premier League soccer participants in Charlottetown have all come back negative.

About 300 professional soccer players, coaches and staff are preparing for a season in a way they’ve never done before, but so far, they say it’s better than they imagined.

Rugby is returning to P.E.I. fields, but there are some rule changes.

There may be the odd mistake and some tough transitions as students and staff adjust to the back-to-school plan, but life at P.E.I. schools should be fine in time as rules become routine, according to some student council presidents.

The Island has no active cases of COVID-19. The province has reported a total of 36 cases, with no deaths or hospitalizations.

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More COVID-19 stories from CBC P.E.I.

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Doctor killed in Red Deer attack was targeted by assailant, RCMP say

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A Red Deer doctor who died after he was attacked at his walk-in clinic on Monday was deliberately targeted, say RCMP, who have laid a first-degree murder charge in the case.

Dr. Walter Reynolds died in hospital after he was assaulted with a weapon at the Village Mall Walk-in Clinic where he practised.

Deng Mabiour, 54, has been charged with first-degree murder, assault with a weapon and assault. 

“This was not a random attack and was targeted,” Supt.Gerald Grobmeier, detachment commander of the Red Deer RCMP, said at a news conference on Tuesday. 

Grobmeier said police have learned the motive behind the attack but those details won’t be released until the case works it way through the courts.  ​​​

He said the victim and accused knew each other through the clinic but declined to reveal further details on their relationship citing doctor patient privilege.

“Through the charge of first-degree murder, it means it was premeditated,” he said.

“The individual went in a with a goal, and so it wasn’t a random attack. The individual went into the clinic for that purpose.”

A witness to the attack told CBC News that a man armed with a hammer and machete attacked the doctor inside an examination room.

Mabiour has been remanded in custody and is due back in Red Deer provincial court on Wednesday. He has no previous criminal record.

An officer suffered minor injuries in the attack, Grobmeier said. Many first responders who were at the scene on Monday are struggling with the emotional toll of the tragedy, he said. 

“I want to recognize the many individuals who demonstrated bravery yesterday,” he said. “Dr. Reynolds colleagues, as well as members of the public in the clinic acted quickly to come to the aid of the victim and to minimize harm to others.”

‘An unimaginable, horrific act of violence’ 

Reynolds, 45, is being remembered by friends and colleagues as a devoted husband and a loving father.

An online fundraiser established for the family described Reynolds as a loving husband and amazing father to two young daughters. 

“An unimaginable, horrific act of violence took him away from his loving family,” reads the GoFundMe page. 

“His friends, colleagues and community mourns an exceptional human being lost too soon. We all are devastated and heartbroken.”

Funds raised by the campaign will support his daughters’ education, the page said. 

Meanwhile, a candlelight vigil is being planned for Friday at Red Deer City Hall. It will take place in the flower gardens at 7 p.m. 

Grobmeier commended the first responders and urged witnesses to reach out for mental-health support if they need it.

“Our community is reeling from this tragic event,” he said. “We have some police officers who are struggling with the event yesterday. This is a difficult time … grieving is going to be important, whether you knew the victim or not.” 

Reynolds’s death has sent shock waves through the Alberta medical community, Red Deer physician Dr. Peter Bouch said in an interview Tuesday. 

“It’s utter shock and horror,” Bouch said. 

“Every emotion goes through you, that such a thing could happen to a physician in their clinic while seeing a patient.

“I think all of us today are in the same mindset. Why did this happen and what can we do to try and prevent this in the future?”

Bouch, who has practised in Red Deer for more than two decades, knew Reynolds as a friend and colleague. 

They often crossed paths in the central Alberta community’s tight-knit network of doctors. 

Reynolds was a young father with an active family. 

Both men originally hailed from South Africa. Both shared a passion for medicine.

“He was a family man and an all-around very friendly, great guy,” Bouch said. 

“He was an excellent doctor. You know, he really cared about his patients. He was a great doctor and a great family man.”

Doctors struggle to make sense of tragedy 

Bouch, who serves as a spokesperson for Red Deer Primary Care Network, said the tragedy has created fear in the medical community.

Doctors, already dealing with the pressures of the pandemic, are feeling anxious. 

He said he received dozens of calls Monday night from physicians struggling to make sense of the tragedy.

Bouch hopes counselling is made available to those who need it. 

“This just adds another layer of stress,” he said. “And all of this stress combines to affect every family physician in town here, especially those who were working closely with him. 

“I think it’s beyond words what they’re going through.” 

Bouch wonders if it will change the way many doctors in the community serve their patients in the future. 

All physicians are trained to deal with difficult patients, but when they come wielding a weapon, no one can prepare for that, he said. He expects to see clinics adopt more safety protocols.

“I really hope that it would not pull away from the doctor-patient relationship … but we’re going to have to be on guard and a lot more vigilant about the people coming into our clinic.

“It’s going to take a while to find the impact that this is going to have on the physician community … it’s yet to be seen exactly what that is.”

Premier Jason Kenney and Alberta Health Minister Tyler Shandro both tweeted Monday that they were saddened to hear about the fatal attack on the doctor.

In a news conference Tuesday, Kenney commended the police who responded to the attack and offered condolences to the family. 

“I know hearts and minds go out to the family and the loved ones and the co-workers of that physician,” Kenney said.

“I want to commend the police for having responded quickly and alertly to that attack and preventing any other violence, any other victims of that person. By all accounts, the person appears to have been deranged.

“We will obviously wait for further reports from police in the region but it is a tragic expression of violent crime.” 

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