LONDON, ONT. -- Staggered start dates and virtual schools. That will be the new normal for families with children in the Thames Valley District School Board beginning in September.

CTV News has learned that about 12,000 children will be taking classes remotely, through virtual learning. That amounts to about 15 per cent of the entire student body. Education director Mark Fisher said he wasn’t expecting quite so many would elect to stay home.

“Well it tells me that there is still a tremendous about of anxiety in the broader society, and we are doing our best to implement a multi-pronged approach to keep everybody safe and to mitigate risks. But there’s still a lot of risks, and as we prepare for September the variables change daily.”

Fisher also confirmed that seven so-called virtual schools are being created, each with its own principals and teachers.

The makeup of the virtual schools will be as follows: kindergarten, grades one and two, grades three and four, grades five and six, grades seven and eight, french immersion, and a virtual high school.

ETFO Thames Valley Teacher Local President Craig Smith virtual teaching positions will first be offered to those teachers with medical concerns or other considerations.

“It could be that we have teachers who have kids that have concerns, partners that have concerns, who are taking care of elderly parents who may be vulnerable. So it’s opened up that pool a little bit more. And those will be staffed based on qualification and seniority.”

He added that “the experiences of this past spring, when the pandemic first caused the closure of schools, will be a good starting-off point.

“I think from our perspective we should build on what we learned from the period from March till the end of June. And this board did I think a reasonably good job of providing teachers with an array of options that they can use to do that, and then trusted in their professional judgement to do it.”

Meantime, not everyone will have the same start date.

The school board has decided to go with staggered dates, following recent approvals from the Ministry of Education. Fisher said this will help students, families, and teachers ease in to what will be an unusual setting.

“Because it will be very different. Things like directional arrows, and hand-washing techniques, and plexi-glass, and maximum occupancy in bathrooms. So we need to acclimatize everyone with that and we will do that over the first two weeks. And then as long as everybody follows all of the proper precautions, we are confident we can move forward with confidence.”

Fisher added that the end-date for school will not change for anyone. Details on who starts when will be rolled out next week.

For those families who wish their children learning remotely to return to school part-way through the semester, there will be re-entry opportunities in November and January, but families will be asked to provide ample notice.