B.C. announced Wednesday that most K-12 students will return to school full time in September amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The plan is Stage 2 of the province’s K-12 Education Restart Plan, developed after schools shut down in March to limit the spread of COVID-19.
Education Minister Rob Fleming spearheaded the announcement, joined by provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, president of BC School Trustees Association, Stephanie Higginson, and the president of the BC Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils, Andrea Sinclair.
According to Fleming, there will be enhanced safety measures and additional resources available to help students return.
“We are maximizing the number of students who are returning to class,” Fleming said at a news conference. “We had 200,000 students attend school in June and that has given us some important information. We do know there’s no substitute for in-class learning.”
Back in June, some kindergarten to Grade 12 students returned to school on a part-time basis, with new health and safety guidelines, before summer break started. The return to the classroom was optional and there was still an online curriculum available for students who were at home.
Fleming said classes are essential to the mental and academic development of students and the plan will support and ensure their health and safety.
“We were the only jurisdiction in Canada that brought students back into the classroom provincewide 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,” he said.
The back to school plan includes “cohorts” or learning groups (group of students and staff who remain together throughout year) to reduce the number of close interactions.
Learning groups no more than 60 people in elementary and middle school. There will be a maximum of 120 people in secondary.
All boards of education and independent school authorities will continue to be required to implement a suite of health and safety measures to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission, following the recently updated guidelines from the BC Centre for Disease Control.
Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said students being in class is about getting important social and emotional supports as well as education.
“Looking to September, school is going to look and feel different,” she said. “We know schools can safely reopen if community transmission is low.”
Henry said the learning groups will limit the potential for COVID-19 transmission and make contact tracing easier. She said if transmissions occur within schools the plan will have to be flexible and adjustments made.
She also said large gatherings of students at assemblies and competitive sporting events between schools will not be held this fall. But she said the plan provides schools opportunities to be innovative about engaging students.
The province will be investing $45.6 million, part of the BC COVID-19 Action Plan, to support school districts and independent schools for the start of the school year. This investment will go toward increased cleaning of high-contact surfaces, increased number of hand-hygiene stations and the availability of masks upon request, among other safety measures.
Staff and students (or their parents/guardians) will also need to assess themselves daily for symptoms of COVID-19.
If any student or staff member has even mild symptoms, arrangements will need to be made for that person to return home.
The government is developing operational guidelines that will further assist school districts and independent schools with their planning for September.
An education steering committee including teachers, parents, Indigenous rightsholders, support staff, principals and vice-principals, school trustees and the public health sector has also been established to identify best practices and find solutions to potential issues.
“B.C. will continue to keep a strong focus on science-based decisions as we learn to adjust the delivery of education during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Stephanie Higginson, president of the B.C. School Trustees Association, said. “Boards of education across the province will utilize updated health and safety measures, created on the advice of the provincial health officer, to ensure that students can continue to receive the social, emotional and academic supports provided by their community school during this critical time in education.”
Families will hear from their school district or independent school throughout the summer with updated health and safety guidelines for elementary, middle and secondary schools, as well as learning groups, schedules, enrolment and registration information, with the final details being submitted to the ministry and posted online by the districts on Aug. 26, 2020.
But the BC Teachers’ Federation says the plan needs more time and a lot more work if its going to be successful and keep everyone safe.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has been hard on all of us, especially children and youth,” said BC Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) President Teri Mooring said in a statement.
“Education is vital and we all agree that students need to return to school, rebuild their social connections, and learn from their teachers in a classroom setting. A lot of excellent work has already gone into the restart planning by the steering committee and working groups, but this announcement misses the mark on several critical components and should go back to those working groups. This plan is still a work in progress and there is a lot of room for improvement. I am confident that with more authentic consultation and collaboration, we can get to a much better place.”
The BCTF says as part of the government’s planning process, the BCTF has two representatives on the Ministry of Education’s steering committee and 25 active classroom teachers on the working groups.
The BCTF says its representatives were surprised to see some of the details in the announcement made today and agree that the system isn’t ready to enact the government’s plan at this point.
Mooring said she is calling on the government to let the steering committee and working groups get back to the job of identifying solutions and delay implementation of this current version of the restart plan.
The key concerns the BCTF is asking the government to address with the working groups are:
- Authentic consultation and collaboration at the local level between school districts and local unions.
- Health and safety measures in place and tested before staff return to the school site and before students return to class.
- Time in September for teachers to plan, prepare, and undertake the necessary in-service training and health and safety orientations to enable equitable learning conditions and safe workplaces.
- Smaller classes to ensure all of the children, youth, and adults that share our school spaces can adhere to the physical distancing protocols we have all been asked to maintain during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- More clarity around the proposed “cohort model” and how that will keep teachers safe while ensuring students still get their full education.
The scheduled restart of school is currently slated for Sept. 8.
The education plan announcement is available to watch on CHEK’s Facebook page and YouTube channel.
With files from The Canadian Press