VANCOUVER -- The day after students in B.C. returned to the classroom, the education minister provided details on safety measures in place at local schools.

Rob Fleming spoke outside a school in Oak Bay, B.C., about the updated guidelines and attendance on the first day back in weeks.

"Things don't look normal, don't look like they used to, and there's a very good reason for that," Fleming told reporters from the yard outside Monterey Middle School .

"We have to respect one another's physical space. Physical distancing has been the most effective part of B.C.'s pandemic management."

The ministry says about 60,000 students were in class on Monday, or about 30 per cent of what it calls "expected enrolment."

Among the groups with the largest rate of return were Grade 6 students – nearly half of the amount expected were present on the first day. But less than 15 per cent of Grade 12s came back, the ministry says.

Fleming said similar numbers were expected Tuesday, as students on an alternate schedule return for their first day.

Those who did come back saw changes including:

  • fewer students in the school;
  • fewer students allowed to gather in hallways or common areas;
  • more frequent outdoor time;
  • regular cleaning of surfaces including door knobs, toilet seats, keyboards and desks; and
  • staggered drop-offs, recesses and lunch breaks.

Students are also discouraged from sharing food, and some schools have set up handwashing stations.

The ministry has also asked staff and students, or parents and guardians in the case of younger students, to self-monitor for symptoms of COVID-19.

Anyone who is sick or has even mild symptoms is asked not to come in, and if those symptoms appear while at school, that staff member or student will be sent home.

Further details are available on the ministry's website

The voluntary return to school was announced last month, and work was done to prepare schools and ensure physical distancing measures are in place when possible.

The plan for now is that students are on an alternating schedule. Kids from kindergarten to Grade 5 will attend half time, while students from grades 6 to 12 will only be at school one day a week.

And families who feel it's too soon, or have other concerns, can choose not to send their children back until the fall.

Students staying home will be supported by teachers remotely, the ministry says.

"We hope that the June restart is part of something that will help us have an even stronger start to school in September," Fleming said.

"We know that a lot of students have struggled at home, solely based on remote online learning, and I know teachers have done incredibly innovative things to make learning fun and engaging, but a lot of kids have missed in-class instruction, and there really is no substitute for that."

Still, he said, it's an option for parents, and their decisions will be respected.

He added that those who've since changed their mind and want to send their kids back should contact their school directly.

There are four weeks left of the 2019-20 school year.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry previously described the approach schools were taking as "cautious," adding that it will help them plan ahead to the fall.

"This cautious approach will help us learn and help us understand and have the tools that we need for a broader reopening come September," she said over the weekend.