VANCOUVER -- Faced with growing concerns over B.C.'s back-to-school plan, the province's top doctor is telling parents and teachers that classrooms will look different than they did when the pandemic forced schools to close back in March.

Dr. Bonnie Henry says as part of ongoing discussions with administrators, teachers, parents and others on an advisory panel, officials have determined significant changes will be coming to schools this fall.

"People are thinking of the school that they left in March. It is different now," insisted Henry. "We've seen it around the world, we've learned from other places, we learned from June – yes, you can make a classroom safe."

She says they’ll be removing things like furniture, implementing better ventilation in some classrooms, using more hand washing or sanitizing stations, and staggering start and end times for larger schools to avoid over-crowding. Henry also hinted that more “innovative” ideas would be announced in the coming weeks.

As she outlined those details, Premier John Horgan urged everyone involved in the educational system to be flexible and accept there may be ongoing changes.

“I’m confident that as we evolve through the plan into September, October and into November and then the spring it’ll be different when we finish than it was when we started,” said the premier. “It’s August, we’re a month away and what happens over the next 30 days is going to be critical, what happens 30 days after we open is critical as well, but we have to take that first step to get this journey started.”

Parents and teachers alike have been raising concerns about the province’s plan to make in-class learning mandatory five days per week, without mandatory masks, with cohorts of students ranging from 60 to 120 students. One parent started a petition, while another is threatening a lawsuit over a plan he considers unsafe and potentially dangerous.

While B.C.’s principals support the early announcement of the large-scale plan for the resumption of school in September, they also raised concerns about the details that still need to be sorted out – many of them at the district or even individual school level – and asked for the flexibility to vary the exact start date of the school year if necessary.

“There's a great deal of work that needs to be done. What we need now is time with school staff, teaching staff support staff, the entire team from each school,” said B.C. Principals’ and Vice-Principals’ Asoocation president Darren Danyluk, who noted that while administrators have just returned to work from summer break, they still need time to sort out details with teachers and support staff. “It must be a safe place before the doors open."

Horgan was amenable to the idea when asked by journalists, saying “the vast majority of people want to make sure we get this right. If it takes a few more days, so be it.”

He also emphasized the autonomy of school districts and principals in deciding what is best for the needs of each school community, and that there would be variations across the province.

Henry urged teachers, parents and students with concerns to contact their principal for details on their individualized plans, and defended her mask-optional policy while stressing that keeping community transmission low helps everyone.

"Like we have done in many locations in many settings, we will be taking many measures to ensure we reduce risk of transmission in our schools, we need to look at this as we have every other setting in every other sector: we know what we need to do, we know those layers of protection will help us and we need to work together, all of us now with our schools, parents, families, teachers, school boards,” she said, insisting that time at school is critical to children’s wellbeing.

“It's about physical, emotional and mental health as well and many children don't have resources to work virtually, being at school is where they get healthcare and is safe place for them.”