The start of the school year for students in British Columbia is being pushed back from Sept. 8, according to Education Minister Rob Fleming.
Children will be welcomed back to class later in the second week of September after staff reviewed the latest BC Centre for Disease Control guidelines and school operation policies for COVID-19, Education Minister Rob Fleming said Tuesday.
“Having the restart week staged in some kind of manner that would have staff teams together for a couple days before we gradually welcome kids back to make sure that every school – all 1,500 of them in the province – are truly ready to welcome students is a good idea, and that’s the approach that we’ll be taking,” he said.
No official date has been set for children to return to schools.
Fleming said the government and its steering committee are working to finalize how school operations will work.
He said he expects operating guidelines for schools to be released next week.
In the past, students going back to class would return to their previous classrooms before moving to new ones, but Fleming said that isn’t safe now.
“That obviously can’t happen under these pandemic conditions.”
The government is spending $45.6 million on safety measures, including increased cleaning of high-contact surfaces, an increased number of hand-hygiene stations and boosting the availability of masks.
Students will be organized into learning groups to reduce the number of people they come in contact with, cutting the risk of transmitting the novel coronavirus.
Children in elementary and middle schools will have their learning groups capped at 60, while students in secondary schools will have a cap of 120.
School administrators are currently looking at, or have started, changing the physical layout of classrooms and common areas to help students ensure social distancing is maintained, Fleming added.
The announcement of a phased-in approach to returning to classrooms comes as Health Minister Adrian Dix and provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said in a joint statement on Tuesday that community transmission of COVID-19 affects schools.
“As we look to fall, what we’ve learned from other jurisdictions is that transmission in a school setting is a reflection of what’s happening in our communities; keeping our community transmission low and slow keeps us all safe.
“And behind the scenes, public health is using contact tracing to mitigate the new growth in cases.”
The change also follows two days of criticism during question period at the B.C. legislature, with both the B.C. Green Party and B.C. Liberals demanding more clarity on the school restart plan.
On Tuesday, when the official Opposition pressed for more clarity around the specific date kids will be back in the classroom, the education minister suggested a phased-in return for students.
“If we have to use that first week of school to get it right, and districts are saying, ‘look, we need some time with our local administrative teams on the ground,’ that’s a conversation that’s happening at the steering committee,” responded Education Minister Rob Fleming.
Concerns were also raised by the BC Teachers’ Federation and the BC Principals’ and Vice-Principals’ Association last week.
The federation called for more time to work on the return to school plan while the association for school administrators asked the government to consider a flexible classroom start date, depending on the readiness of each school.
Teri Mooring, president of the teachers’ federation, said she’s still looking for more details from the provincial government.
“The plans are still underway but there aren’t enough details and information right now for folks,” she said. “It’s understandable that there’s a high level of concern and stress about what it’ll look like in schools in September.”
Mooring emphasized that the safety of staff and students is the top priority.
Fleming and Dr. Bonnie Henry announced B.C.’s back-to-school plan amid the COVID-19 pandemic on July 29.
Premier John Horgan acknowledged last week the anxiety around returning to school for parents, students and teachers.
However, he was confident that children will be safe when they return to their classrooms.
With files from Tanya Fletcher, CBC and Nick Wells, The Canadian Press