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BC Politics

School’s On for September, as BC Officials Spell Out Restart Plan

Dr. Bonnie Henry expresses confidence, but teachers say feeling safe at work will take time.

Moira Wyton 29 Jul 2020 | TheTyee.ca

Moira Wyton is The Tyee’s health reporter. Follow her @moirawyton or reach her here. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

Nearly all B.C. K to 12 students will be back in classrooms come September as part of an education restart plan that public officials say balances the health, safety, education and work needs of students and their families.

Education Minister Rob Fleming announced $45.6 million in additional funding for school districts to enhance cleaning procedures, add hand-washing stations and to provide reusable masks to students and teachers upon request.

“Our priority, as we have moved forward through the stages that I’ve mentioned previously, continues to be delivering quality education, while protecting the health and safety of students and staff,” said Fleming.

Interactions between students and staff will also be limited by placing them in learning groups between 60 students in younger grades and 120 students in secondary grades who are more able to physically distance in learning settings.

“It is a robust plan that I believe puts the health and safety of our children, teachers and staff at the top of our list of requirements,” said provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry.

Students, teachers and staff will need to self-assess for symptoms of COVID-19 every day and all individuals with even a sniffle will be asked to stay home.

Masks will not be mandatory but encouraged and recommended on school buses and other areas where physical distancing is not possible.

And extracurriculars can continue, provided physical distancing is possible, but inter-school tournaments and sports matches aren’t in the cards anytime soon.

“The foundational rules for safe social interactions will apply in our schools as well,” said Henry. “And that includes hand hygiene, washing hands regularly, maintaining a safe physical distance when inside as much as possible, but in particular with those outside of your learning group.”

School districts will have to release individual guidelines to implement the plan for students, parents, teachers and staff by Aug. 26.

But the BC Teachers’ Federation says the province’s strategy needs more work and teachers need more time and support.

“Teachers and support staff need time in September to adjust to the new structures, make sure the proper health and safety protocols work, and prepare curricular resources and lessons that meet the new reality,” said BCTF president Teri Mooring in a news release.

“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.”

Fleming said the plan, supported by the BC Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils and BC School Trustees Association, will continue to incorporate teacher feedback and adjust as needed.

“Professional teachers are vital to ensuring these health and safety measures work,” he said. “I understand and it’s okay that not all of them are quite there yet. We will get there.”

In June, B.C. became the only province in Canada to have a significant number of students back in classrooms after COVID-19 restrictions sent students home and forced learning to go remote on March 17.

Henry said the fact that there were no outbreaks with nearly 200,000 voluntary students back in schools in June is good news for this plan as even greater numbers of students come back in person.

Henry doesn’t “necessarily think there will be cases” in schools but that should one arise, the affected learning groups will be asked to self-isolate and monitor for symptoms.

Children under 10 are also much less likely to transmit or become infected by COVID-19 than adults, Henry said.

“This plan is very similar to how we have managed all along, trying to keep numbers small and manageable so we minimize the potential for transmission, and we also maximize our ability to efficiently find people and make sure that the transmission chains are stopped,” said Henry.

The majority of parents surveyed by the BC Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils said they wanted their children to return to in-class instruction and that managing remote learning from home had been challenging, particularly for children with complex needs and disabilities.

Fleming and Henry said being away from the school environment is hard for students emotionally and psychologically. Some students will have been out of school for 175 days come their return on Sept. 8.

Supporting the most affected students, including learning plans for students who are immunocompromised or who have complex needs, will ultimately be up to individual school districts and families to find a plan that works for them.

The BCTF says teachers need more time to prepare for this complete new set of practices and the province needs to take steps to limit class sizes, provide PPE directly to teachers and staff, and clarify the learning group cohort model.

“We all share the same goal — getting students and teachers safely back into class — but there’s still a lot to do before we can say with confidence that September will be safe and successful,” said Mooring.  [Tyee]

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