The B.C. government announced on Wednesday a full return to school in September for kids in kindergarten to Grade 12.
On the advice of the provincial health officer, students will be organized into consistent group of staff and students, to be called learning groups, in a bid to reduce the risk of transmission of COVID-19 and ensure quicker contact-tracing if needed.
“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,” Education Minister Rob Fleming said.
“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.”
Students returned to the classroom in June on a part-time, voluntary basis.
The province is committing $45.6 million to help support school districts and independent schools implement additional safety measures, with the spread of the virus still a reality, such as increased cleaning of high-contact surfaces.
Masks will not be required at school, but will be made available upon request.
“Being back in school is also crucial to support many parents in being able to work, but we must do it safely,” said provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry.
“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.”
Anyone who enters a school will be required to assess themselves for COVID-19 symptoms — a measure that’s been in place since June. If any student or staff member has even mild symptoms, arrangements will be made for them to return home.
However, some details still need to be worked out, as the ministry is developing operational guidelines to further help school districts with their planning for September.
The learning groups, a new concept in B.C., will be no more than 60 people in elementary and middle school and no more than 120 people in secondary school.
Students in a learning group will not need 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 and in common areas like the gym, library, and playground.
Henry has said many times that experts believe the spread of COVID-19 is less likely in people aged 10 and younger.
Learning groups are smaller in elementary and middle schools because it is more challenging for younger students to maintain physical distance. Each school district and independent school authority will plan for their local needs based on their school populations and classroom space available.
Students will still have a primary teacher in elementary and middle schools. Secondary school students will continue to be organized in classrooms, have access to electives, and able to reconfigure their learning group for each new semester.
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Some schools may reorganize how they offer courses, such as allowing students to take two courses at a time every 10 weeks. The Abbotsford School District has already announced plans to move to the quarterly model.
Almost 200,000 kids returned to the classroom in June. Only two cases of COVID-19, both teachers, were linked to schools and did not lead to any further spread.
The new money will include $23 million for more staff and staff time for cleaning, $9.2 million for improving and increasing access to hand hygiene, and $5.1 million for cleaning supplies. Another $3.1 million will go to independent schools.
There will be $2.2 million to ensure reusable face masks are available for staff if desired, and for students who need to travel on school buses or public transportation outside of their learning group.
This funding also includes $3 million to support remote learning, such as technology loans or software to support students with disabilities or complex needs.
Meanwhile, the BC Teachers’ Federation said it supports a full return, but still has substantial concerns about the government’s plan.
The union is asking for even smaller classes to ensure everyone can follow physical-distancing protocols, as well as additional time in September to take the health and safety orientations.
“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,” president Teri Mooring said.
School districts may also install transparent barriers for people who have more contact with others, such as front desk staff, bus drivers, and food services staff.
Staff and older students may use masks when they’re interacting outside their learning group and cannot maintain physical distance for an extended period of time. This includes riding the bus, when a student may be sitting next to a person outside of their household or learning group.
This is a corrected story. A previous version reported that children in kindergarten to Grade 7 will return to in-class instruction full-time. Information received from the Ministry of Education was incorrect.