B.C.’s education minister says “most students” will be returning to the classroom in September.
Rob Fleming said during a Wednesday (July 29) briefing efforts to get kindergarten to Grade 12 students back into classrooms is being spurred by the need for young people to interact with their peers.
The plan also comes as the economy re-emerges from a COVID-19-induced lockdown, leaving parents with increased child-care pressures.
“We know schools can safely reopen if community transmission is low,” B.C. Provincial Health Office Bonnie Henry said at the briefing.
She said students will be divided into cohorts or “learning groups” of student and staff that primarily only interact with each other throughout the school year.
For elementary students, those groups will be made up of about 60 people, although Henry emphasized they will not all be in the same classroom.
Secondary schools will see learning groups of up to 120 people.
Henry added that despite the large size of the groups, not everyone will have contact with each other each day.
“When September comes, I ask families, employers to please continue to be flexible,” she said, acknowledging that authorities expect COVID-19 cases will occur but the goal is to minimize the risk of transmission.
As for the size difference in learning groups between elementary and secondary school students, Henry said older students will be able to better recognize if they have symptoms of COVID-19 and can practise hygiene while in large groups.
The B.C. government is earmarking $45.6 million in additional funding to enhance cleaning regimes and hire more cleaning staff.
Fleming said masks will not be mandatory but some of the funding will go towards providing reusable masks for instances in which physical distancing is not possible.
B.C. Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) president Teri Mooring, who was not present at the news conference, said excellent work has been done with the restart plan by the province’s steering committee and a number of working groups.
“But this announcement misses the mark on several critical components and should go back to those working groups,” she said in a statement.
“Bringing everyone back all at once, even with some version of a cohort model, on the first day after the Labour Day long weekend, is too much too soon given the many unanswered questions in today’s announcement.”
In a follow-up call with Glacier Media, Mooring said the potential for long weekends to expose people to large groups makes the Sept. 8 resumption concerning.
Instead, she said the union would prefer a phased or delayed start to the schoolyear that would also provided teachers additional time to prepare for the new measures being introduced at schools.
The BCTF has two representatives on the Ministry of Education’s steering committee and 25 teachers on the working groups.
Mooring said Fleming’s overtures during the briefing to continue collaborating with the working groups and steering committee over the summer came as “welcome news to us.”
“We believe there is time to take a look at this [learning group] model and the feasibility of it, and suggest solutions,” she said.
“But we’re going to need a lot of time because that’s a lot of work.”
The union said it wants more collaboration at the local level between school districts and local unions, as well as health and safety measures tested and in place before staff and students return to schools.
The BCTF is also calling for more clarity around learning groups and how teachers’ health will be maintained through this model.
“We need to think of it more like a workplace, where we take precautions but we have our work bubble as well and we make sure that we’re not having contact, as much as possible,” Henry said.
Students in the learning groups do not have to all be in the same class.
But they will be able to interact with each other during breaks, or in common areas such as the gym, the playground or the library.
“The idea of the learning groups is very different and we kind of have to shake out of our heads how we’re used to seeing schools organized because if we keep trying to stick a square peg into a round hole, it’s not going to fit,” Stephanie Higginson, president of the B.C. School Trustees Association, said during the news conference.
“If a student has an elective that’s outside their learning group, they can then take the elective as long as social distancing can be observed in that elective. That might include things like band, or choral music or drama, where you could use a bigger space. And it might mean that we have to use the spaces within our schools differently than what we’re used to doing.”
When pressed on the risks of band and singing — activities that see saliva being projected — Henry said the government will continue to follow those concerns.
“There’s a lot that can be done in small groups with distancing, particularly outside,” she said, adding it may not be possible to offer those activities everywhere.
Regarding the prospect of team sports, Henry said “there will be no tournaments, there will be no assemblies, there will be no large group gatherings where people from outside areas would be coming together.”
Mooring said it still remains unclear what this means for many students, especially when it comes to ensuring physical distancing.
“We understand that in some of the larger schools that cohort model might be very challenging and it might mean that not all students return,” she said, adding the BCTF would like to see smaller class sizes.
As for immunocompromised students, Fleming said more guidelines will be forthcoming shortly from the B.C. Centre for Disease Control.
He said it would also be up to each school district to plan for local needs and figure out the space needed in their buildings.
“There are some more densely populated urban areas in our province where secondary schools are large and it may not be possible to have people stay in their learning group while physically distancing on a full-time basis,” Fleming said, noting there are 16 schools across the province that have between 1,500 and 2,000 students.
“In these schools, districts are looking at a variety of options to maximize in-class learning for their students and in some cases they may need to offer a hybrid approach.”
B.C. K-12 students returned to classrooms in June on a part-time, voluntarily basis.
Kindergartners to Grade 5 students were permitted to attend school half-time, while Grade 6-12 students could return for the equivalent of one day a week.
The first week of June brought in 157,000 students — about 30% of the province's K-12 population.
By the end of the school year, Fleming said that number grew to about 200,000 students.
“Data has shown that children and youth are at a much lower risk of becoming infected with COVID-19, and if they become infected, they generally have milder symptoms,” Ingrid Tyler, medical health officer for the Fraser Health Authority, stated in a May 27 letter to parents and staff.
“Children primarily get sick from other household members, and not from school settings. There is also no conclusive evidence that children who are asymptomatic pose a risk to other children or to adults.”
A July summary of Surrey School District’s safety plans for Phase 3 sees schools abiding by guidelines provided by WorkSafeBC and the Ministry of Education.
The plans include physical-distancing measures that see workstations separated by 2 metres or else a partition, as well as visibly posted occupancy limits in common spaces.
Washrooms, classrooms, water fountains and high-touch surfaces such as doorknobs and keyboards are to be cleaned twice a day.
Coffee makers and shared utensils have also been removed to make cleaning easier.
Parents and visitors are also not to be permitted within buildings except when prior approval is granted.
The district’s return to work policy requires any employees or students showing symptoms of COVID-19 to refrain from entering school property.
Meanwhile, Surrey School District also issued COVID-19-related accommodation forms for employees to submit to doctors in the event they feel unable to return to work at a school.
The forms ask doctors to outline what’s preventing a worker from working, as it relates to COVID-19.
Questions include the start date of a condition that prevents a return to the workplace as well as the limitations or restrictions that would prevent a worker from performing regular duties.