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Province announces back to school plan for September

Education Minister Rob Fleming and Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry announce the province’s back to school plan. Government of B.C. photo

Enhanced safety measures and additional resources will enable most students in grades K-12 to return to school on Sept. 8, 2020, with full-time in-class learning as the province moves to Stage 2 of B.C.’s Education Restart Plan.

“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 Rob Fleming, Minister of Education, 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.”

On the advice of the provincial health officer, students will be organized into learning groups, a consistent group of staff and students. 

Learning groups are groups of students and staff who remain together throughout the school year and who primarily interact with each other.

Cohorts (learning groups) will be no more than 60 people in elementary and middle school and no more than 120 people in secondary school. It will not be necessary for students in a learning group to all be in the same class, but they will be able to interact and connect with each other as a consistent group during breaks, in common areas like the gym, library, or at the playground.

Limiting the number of people each student or staff member comes into contact with will reduce the risk of transmission and will ensure quicker contact tracking.

Learning groups are smallest in elementary and middle schools because it is more challenging for younger students to maintain physical distance. Older students are better able to minimize physical contact, practice hand hygiene and recognize if they are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19.

Each school district and independent school authority will plan for their local needs based on their school populations and classroom space available.

Elementary schools

* Elementary schools will remain organized into classrooms as students’ primary learning environment.

* Most elementary schools in the province can return to full-time in-class instruction with minimal modifications to school bell schedules and timetables.

Middle schools

* Middle schools that follow an elementary school model (for instance, one classroom with one teacher) will be organized like elementary schools, with minimal modifications to school bell schedules and timetables.

* Middle schools that follow a “junior high” model, where students move from class-to-class and take a range of subjects taught by different teachers, may need to be reorganized for full-time, in-class learning.

Secondary schools

Secondary school students will continue to be organized in classrooms, ensuring students still have access to electives and they will be able to reconfigure their learning group for each new semester. Some schools may reorganize how they offer courses, such as allowing students to take two courses at a time every 10 weeks.

Small secondary schools

* There are 96 public secondary schools and 49 independent schools that have fewer than 800 students. These schools will likely require only minor modifications to their bell schedules or timetables to ensure a safe, full-time return to the classroom for all students.

Medium-sized secondary schools

* There are 104 public secondary schools and one independent school with between 800 and 1,500 students. They will need to consider modifications to their bell schedules and timetables to accommodate students in the classroom full-time.

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.

“We know how important it is for children to be back in school – to both support their emotional and mental health and their ability to socialize and to learn,” said Dr. Bonnie Henry, B.C.’s provincial health officer. “Being back in school is also crucial to support many parents in being able to work, but we must do it safely. We ask for families and workplaces to continue to be flexible as we come into the fall. 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.”

A total of $45.6 million as part of the BC COVID-19 Action Plan will support school districts and independent schools for the start of the school year. This funding will ensure the 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) must also assess themselves daily for symptoms of COVID-19. If any student or staff member has even mild symptoms, arrangements will be made for that person to return home.

The ministry 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 rights holders, 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.

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.

The Liberal opposition, however, is giving the back to school plan a failing grade.

“Dr. Bonnie Henry and health officials are doing excellent work to ensure students and staff are safe, but NDP Education Minister Rob Fleming’s decision to download responsibility onto school districts is just creating more uncertainty for parents, students, and teachers,” said Dan Davies, BC Liberal Education Critic. “We found out a few details today but school districts won’t be able to finalize actual plans until August 26 — that’s still only a week before classes are supposed to return. Normally we would agree with the minister’s suggestion to ‘rely on our distance learning resources,’ except he slashed $12 million from Independent Distributed Learning school budgets earlier this year so I’m not sure what resources the Minister is referring to.”

The NDP guidelines will expand permissible “bubbles” to school cohorts of 60 for elementary schools and 120 people for high schools but with no guides to school districts on how to structure this.

“Parents won’t find out until a week before classes start what school will look like in their districts and that simply isn’t good enough. They expected clarity today and instead are left with more questions than answers,” said Davies. “Parents are already feeling incredible stress as they look to the fall and they’ll now spend August worrying about what kind of after-school care and child care they will need and whether they may have to stay home with their children.”

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