Most B.C. students to return to school for full-time in-class learning in September
VANCOUVER -- Most students in B.C. will be able to return to class full time after Labour Day, the province's education ministry announced Wednesday.
In March, students in B.C. didn't return to class after spring break because of the COVID-19 pandemic and classes were instead held virtually. On June 1, some students returned to classrooms part time.
But officials said in a news conference Wednesday that, with enhanced safety measures, most students will be able to transition back to classroom learning on Sept. 8.
"The classroom is an essential part of a child's social, academic and mental development, and that's why we are working hard to ensure students can safely spend the next school year with their teachers and classmates," said Minister of Education Rob Fleming in a news release.
"We were the only jurisdiction in Canada that brought students back into the classroom province-wide before the end of the school year and this has given us valuable information that we are using to develop our plans, ensuring health and safety at schools remain paramount."
Part of the province's plan includes organizing students into "learning groups," with consistent staff and students, to reduce the number of people coming in contact with each other.
"The principle behind these learning groups is to create groups of students and staff who will remain together throughout the school year or term and who primarily interact only with each other," Dr. Bonnie Henry said Wednesday.
"While they may not be in the same classroom, learning groups will be able to connect with each other during breaks in common areas and in places like the playground, then gym or the library."
Henry said this also means, if there is an outbreak of COVID-19, transmission will be limited.
Henry explained that, in elementary and middle schools, each learning group will have, at most, 60 people. For secondary schools, the learning groups will be up to 120 people and schedules might need to be adjusted to accommodate those numbers.
Henry said the numbers are smaller for the younger grades because they tend to have a harder time keeping a physical distance from each other.
"That's a maximum. And that doesn't mean that you will have contact with all of those people every day," she said.
In addition, staff and students will also be required to assess themselves daily for symptoms of COVID-19 and must stay home even with mild symptoms.
"Even though we've had an uptick in the last few weeks, we know that we have flattened the curve here in B.C. and we know we have what it takes to continue to keep our transmission rates low," Henry said.
The province says it's investing $45.6 million through its COVID-19 Action Plan to support school districts at the start of the year. That funding will be used to ensure increased cleaning and more hand-hygiene stations are available. Masks will also be available upon request, but won't be required.
"We've put a lot of thoughtful work and consideration into reopening schools this fall and in making sure we're supporting children in ways that keep them, the people who teach them and our communities safe," Henry said, adding that if cases increase significantly in the fall, the schedules may need to change again.
And, for larger schools, a blend of in-class and online learning might be implemented instead.
The education ministry says families will hear from schools throughout the summer with updated health and safety guidelines and with their learning groups and schedules. Final details will be posted online on Aug. 26.
'Too much too soon': Teachers' federation
In a statement responding to the province's announcement, the BC Teachers' Federation president Teri Mooring says the plan "needs more time and a lot more work."
"If the plan is rushed or too many questions are left unanswered, it won’t be successful," Mooring said.
"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."
Mooring added that, while she agrees students do need to return to class, teachers and support staff need time in September to adjust to the new structures and safety measures.
"If school staffs are given time to collaborate, get training, and prepare, everyone will be better off," she said.
Ahead of the education ministry's announcement, West Vancouver history teacher Jessica Selzer told CTV News Vancouver that she's concerned for her health and her mother's health.
"I love my job, I love teaching students, I love teaching history, but I’m very nervous about not just my health and safety, but my mother's health and safety and also that of my students and their families," she said Tuesday.
With files from CTV News Vancouver's Shannon Paterson