VANCOUVER -- Members of LGBTQ student support groups will now be able to connect with their peers virtually during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Students can now, for the first time, participate in B.C.'s Gay-Straight or Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA) meetings over the phone or online.

"We know that LGBTQ2S+ kids report higher rates of feeling isolated and for some students, their school community was the only place where they could be their authentic selves," said Minister of Education Rob Fleming in a news release.

"That’s why now, more than ever, it’s so important for LGBTQ2S+ children and youth to stay connected and to know that they have safe, confidential outlets to virtually socialize with each other."

GSA groups help provide elementary and secondary school students with a safe space to meet and discuss gender identity issues, as well as connect with their peers through the promotion of belonging and acceptance. The groups also aim to eliminate bias, discrimination, harassment and violence by educating schools about homophobia and transphobia.

A study of B.C. students showed that the presence of a GSA group in a school for three years or more can lead to lower rates of suicidal thoughts in both gay and straight students. The clubs also had a positive effect on LGBTQ2S+ students' overall health, well-being, and self-esteem, the study found.

"I have heard heartbreaking stories about the challenges that many people in the LGBTQ2S+ community face, and for many, those feelings of isolation, loneliness and depression may be amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Judy Darcy. "These virtual meet-ups are absolutely vita so LGBTQ2S+ students can connect with their peers when they need it most."

The online meet-ups were created after educators from 40 school districts, 14 independent schools and two First Nations received online training to ensure that students' privacy and safety could be protected. The province said it has been a challenge to inform students that the GSAs are running online since many students go by preferred names, and the educators that sponsor the groups don't always have direct connections with the kids.

"We know that many LGBTQ2S+ youth experience discrimination in their own homes. These youth are at particular risk of mental-health problems and suicide, and they need targeted supports," said Mitzi Dean, parliamentary secretary for gender equity. "Helping students by ensuring virtual connections and resources are available will go a long way to getting through this time of physical isolation, which is not forever, but for many, may seem like it is."