While some Canadian students will be heading back to classrooms in as soon as two weeks, B.C.'s education minister hasn't given a timeline for when that might happen in this province.
Minister of Education Rob Fleming was joined by Stephanie Higginson, president of the B.C. School Trustees Association, for a briefing Tuesday where they gave an overview on how teaching has continued while most students have stayed home.
Fleming began his statement by saying he was not announcing when schools will reopen, but commended the resilience of students and teachers.
"I'm heartened by the creative and compassionate stories we hear every day emerging from the B.C. school system," he said.
The decision to suspend in-class learning was made on March 17. Since then, resources have launched online for students to continue learning at home.
But even though Quebec has announced its primary schools will reopen in two weeks, Fleming said B.C. isn't at that point yet.
"Many sectors in the province are starting to plan for the future, including the education sector," he said.
"We will continue taking direction from the provincial health officer, from the premier and cabinet on when and how schools would be able to increase the number of students receiving in-class instruction and what a phased approach can look like."
Fleming stressed the ministry wants that plan to be in place before announcing any dates.
"What we're working on is really focusing on the planning so that if and when we do announce (schools reopening) … we have that right, we have a completed plan," Fleming said.
"I think a couple other jurisdictions have put setting a date ahead of establishing and developing a comprehensive and safe plan, and I think that's backwards."
Instead, Fleming said B.C.'s education ministry will closely monitor places like New Zealand and Quebec as they reopen classrooms to see what lessons can be learned.
"I think perhaps we have an advantage to being able to look at other jurisdictions who, for their own reasons, have announced dates and returns to school that we have not done thus far in B.C.," he said.
"We are monitoring and learning from … other jurisdictions. This will help us here in British Columbia inform an evidence-based plan for B.C. which minimizes the risk of COVID-19 transmission when the conditions are appropriate."
BCTF backs wait-and-see approach
The union representing B.C. teachers agrees with the province’s decision not to issue a specific timeline for returning to school.
“I think it’s much better to wait and see how we’re progressing as opposed to setting dates that keep on getting moved back. I think that’s more difficult to deal with,” said BCTF president Teri Mooring. “I’m not at all convinced that the school year’s over, but I’m also not sure what’s going to unfold.“
If more students do go back to the classroom in May and June, Mooring wants personal protective equipment to be made available for teachers.
“I do think we’re going to have people, teachers and support staff much more comfortable wearing PPE. So I think it needs to be available for people to choose to wear if they want to, even if it’s not a recommendation.”
'Several thousand' students going to class now
Even though most of B.C.'s students are learning from home, Fleming said there are "several thousand" children of essential workers who are attending school in person.
"Districts are working to expand this number each and every day, and each and every week," he said.
But Fleming said that's still a "fairly small number" compared to the public school population of 550,000 in B.C.
"It's mostly in elementary school settings, it's the younger children that can't be home alone that their parents who are nurses or frontline health-care workers," he explained.
"We hope to expand that because, as we've learned during this pandemic, there are a lot of crucially important points in our economy that help sustain all of us … so there are other tiers of essential workers who are involved now in the school system, we expect those numbers will grow in the coming weeks."
Previously, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has said a return to classrooms would likely happen in waves, and there is especially a push to get younger kids who need supervision back to class so more parents can return to work.
"We need to provide those educational services particularly for those younger students who can't stay home by themselves if their parents are going off to work, and that’s the focus for the next little while. How do we do that, and safely," Henry said Monday.
Watch an American Sign Language translation of the news conference on the provincial government's YouTube page.