VANCOUVER -- Students in B.C. will be given the option to return to their classrooms part time starting June 1, the province's premier announced Friday.

John Horgan was joined by Education Minister Rob Fleming, Minister of State for Childcare Katrina Chen and provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry for the announcement. 

In-class learning stopped for most students after spring break as a result of the novel coronavirus pandemic. 

"Suspending in-class learning was a necessary pause in March," Henry said Friday. 

"Parents and teachers have been doing their very best to support our children and provide ongoing learning opportunities."

But even though in-class instruction will resume, officials stressed returning to school will be voluntary and new protocols will be in place to promote physical distancing. 

"These steps will pave the way for a full restart in September," Horgan said. 

Fleming said school leaders will contact families about their plan to return to classrooms over the next week. If they haven't heard from their schools by May 22, parents should contact their school's principal.

Most students will attend school part-time, Fleming said. Students in kindergarten to Grade 5 will be at school two or three days a week.

"This means that elementary schools will be at 50 per cent or less of their normal capacity on school days," he said. 

Meanwhile students in Grade 6 or higher will likely only be in school one day each week. Only 20 per cent of students will be in a school at a given time. 

Even though class sizes will be reduced, students are still expected to be with their same teachers. 

As well, students of essential workers will be able to go to school full time, and remote learning will still be available for all B.C. students, including those who return to school part time. 

"Families that want to can continue having their children learn at home," Fleming said. 

Cleaning protocols, physical distancing measures to come

Fleming also said there are new public health guidelines in place for schools to operate safely. 

"All boards of education … will be required to implement these measures," he said, adding they will need to submit plans for approval to the province. 

For example, lunch breaks and recesses will need to be staggered, and hallway flows might be adjusted. There will be guidelines given on desk configurations. 

"There will be a regular, rigorous cleaning schedule for high-contact surfaces, things like doorknobs, washrooms and keyboards at least twice a day, while school buildings will have a deep cleaning daily," Fleming said. 

Students and staff will be required to clean their hands when they arrive at school and hand sanitizing stations will be readily available. 

"Staff and students and parents must do a self-assessment daily for symptoms of COVID-19, influenza, the common cold," Fleming said. "Any student or staff member with any symptoms, however mild, must stay home."

There will also be measures in place to distance students as much as possible on school buses, he said. 

"It's going to be very strict and it needs to be," Fleming said. 

Teachers prepared for return: Union

BC Teachers’ Federation president Teri Mooring said the union and other stakeholders worked collaboratively on the return to school and particularly to make sure health and safety requirements were in place across the province.

“Teachers can be assured that schools will be ready for them when they return,” Mooring said. “And families can take some assurance, as well, that they’ll be safe buildings.”

Yet, she noted, teachers are still working on access to personal protective equipment. While teachers can wear PPE, Mooring said BCTF felt the equipment should be available upon request.

The other area being worked on is how to accommodate requests for both online and in-classroom learning.

“We need to be really careful that we don’t see teachers burn out here,” said Mooring.

She said the rollout of the online teaching system was labour-intensive and happened rapidly. Now, the system for some teachers who will have to teach both online and in-person is a work in progress, she said.

Mooring added other jurisdictions that have brought back students have seen enrolment at about 30 to 40 per cent.

There will also be teachers who need to be accommodated for medical reasons, and Mooring said those are all issues that need to be taken into consideration.

“I’m very confident we’ll find a way to make this work, but it’s going to take a bit of time,” she said.