British Columbia

B.C. heads back to school on Sept. 10. Here are your COVID-19 questions answered

Are masks mandatory and what is a learning group? Questions about the start of school answered here.

Students are headed back to in-class learning on Sept. 10, while teachers and staff head back Sept. 8

Students walk home after school in Vancouver on March 12, 2020. (Ben Nelms/CBC)
  • This information is current as of Sept. 10.

Your questions:

When do students have to wear masks?

Do I have to buy a mask? 

What is a learning group?

How does a learning group work? 

How will students physically distance within a classroom?

Can students interact with other students and staff in different learning groups?

Is in-class attendance mandatory?

Are there options other than in-class learning? 

What happens if you have COVID symptoms?

What if someone in my household has COVID symptoms but I don't?

What if my child has allergies? 

What happens if you develop COVID symptoms at school?

What happens if someone in my learning group has COVID-19?

Will there be public notification when there's a COVID-19 case at a school? 

Is there a scenario where schools shut down completely? 

What happens to tournaments and festivals? 

Can extracurricular sports and clubs still take place?

Q: When do students have to wear masks?

Middle and secondary school

Masks are required for all staff and students in middle and secondary school when they are in high traffic areas where they cannot physically distance from others. This includes places like hallways and anytime they are outside of their learning group. 

They will also be required to wear one on the school bus. 

Middle school and secondary students can wear masks in the classroom and when interacting with their learning group if they choose to, but it is not required.

Elementary school

Elementary school students are not required to wear masks in British Columbia, however students will have the choice to wear masks in the classroom.

Those who cannot wear masks for medical reasons will be exempt.

Students and staff will be required to wear a mask if they develop symptoms at school and they are waiting to go home.

Students wear face masks in a classroom in Dortmund, Germany, on Aug. 12, 2020. (Ina Fassbender/AFP via Getty Images)

Q:Do I have to buy a mask? 

The Ministry of Education says students and staff will be provided with reusuable cotton jersey masks during the first week of classes. School districts are also procuring general-use health and safety supplies, including disposable masks, with specific funds allocated for COVID-19 health and safety measures.

Q: What is a learning group?

A learning group is a group of students and staff grouped together throughout a school quarter, semester or year and who spend most of their time with each other. 

Some examples of learning groups include: a homeroom class that does all its learning together; a group of students from two separate homeroom classes who come together for activities like recess and lunch; or, a group of secondary students who attended core classes and electives together during one semester. 

The point of learning groups is to limit the number of contacts that any one student or teacher has. 

Different age groups have a different maximum number for their learning group depending on their capacity to follow other health protocols. There is no set minimum size.

  • Elementary: up to 60 people.
  • Middle: up to 60 people.
  • Secondary: up to 120 people.

Q: How does a learning group work? 

For example, in elementary school, a learning group could include two homeroom classrooms. Students are taught primarily by their homeroom teacher, but they might be taught by the other homeroom teacher if that teacher has a specialized skill set in a different subject. Students in that learning group might share recess and lunch time together.

In secondary school, students will be divided according to what core and elective subjects they have chosen. For example, a Grade 11 student might share a learning group with everyone taking Biology 11 and English 11 during the first quarter. In a new quarter or semester, students will be put into new learning groups based on different subjects.

Middle schools will follow the elementary homeroom model or the secondary school quarter/semester model depending on their class structure. 

Q: How will students physically distance within a classroom?

According to the province, people in a learning group don't need to stay two metres apart at all times but they must limit physical contact and touching.

Where possible, classrooms will be set up to increase spacing between students. Health officials also recommend using a consistent seating plan when possible.

In high traffic areas — like a school's reception desk — physical barriers are recommended.

Outside of a learning group, including all extracurricular activities, middle and secondary students and all staff and other adults should keep a healthy distance from each other. The BCCDC recommends at least two metres.

An empty classroom is pictured at Eric Hamber Secondary school in Vancouver, B.C. Monday, March 23, 2020. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

Q: Can students interact with other students and staff in different learning groups?

Yes, students can socialize with a friend in a different learning group if they maintain physical distance. 

Elementary school-aged students can interact with a friend in a different learning group without physical distancing if they are outdoors, but they must minimize physical contact and touching.

Middle and secondary schoolers must maintain physical distancing with anyone outside their learning group at all times.

Q: Is in-class attendance mandatory?

Yes, students who are registered at schools have to attend school in-person unless they are sick. 

For the most part, there will be no daily online options for elementary and middle school students (unless they are enrolled specifically as a distant learner). Some districts, however, are offering blended learning models that will slowly transition students from online classes to in-class instruction. 

Secondary school students might have some online learning components, depending on the availability of in-class instruction and the size of their learning group.

Q: Are there options other than in-class learning? 

Yes, parents can choose alternatives to in-class learning. 

The province recommends speaking with your school district before choosing an alternative model to in-class learning, as it may affect future options to re-enrol as an in-class student in that school at a later date. 

Some school districts — like Surrey and Vancouver — are offering a blended online and in-class program that slowly transitions students into the classroom. Contact your local district for specific details. 

It also recommends making a decision about in-class learning as soon as possible. 

Enrolling in distance/online learning

Parents can enrol their child in online and distance learning. There are 48 school districts with 56 public schools currently offering distant learning courses, as well as 16 independent schools.

A teacher associated with the school uses a wide variety of electronic tools to teach students who are enrolled in distant learning. These include online technologies, as well as phone calls. 

If interested, elementary school-aged students (kindergarten to Grade 7) must take a full course load at one school, while students in Grades 8 to 12 can enrol in courses from a number of different schools at one time.

Students can participate in online and distant learning. (Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press)


Parents can also homeschool their children. This means the parents/guardians are responsible for the child's full education plan. These plans are not supervised by a B.C.-certified teacher, not required to meet a provincial standard, and not inspected by the Ministry of Education.

The deadline to register for homeschooling is Sept. 30.

According to the province, registered homeschoolers in high school are not eligible for a British Columbia Dogwood Graduation Certificate. However, homeschoolers in Grades 10, 11 or 12 can enrol in distance learning courses from a school board and earn credit toward graduation. They also have the option to complete continuing education courses after age 18 to earn credits toward a British Columbia Adult Graduation Diploma. 

Q: What happens if you have COVID symptoms?

You must not enter the school if you have any symptoms of a cold, influenza, COVID-19 or any other infectious respiratory disease.

Students, staff members and other adults must stay home and self-isolate if they have symptoms. This also applies to anyone who has travelled outside of Canada in the past 14 days, or has been identified as a close contact of a confirmed case or outbreak.

Staff and other adults are responsible for assessing themselves daily for symptoms prior to entering the school.

Parents and caregivers are responsible for assessing their children daily before sending them to school.

Q: What if someone in my household has COVID symptoms but I don't?

You can still come into school if someone in your household has cold, influenza or COVID- 19-like symptoms, provided you are not sick. It is expected that the person with symptoms is seeking assessment to see whether they have COVID-19. 

If that person is confirmed to have COVID-19 and you are identified as a close contact, you must stay home and self-isolate.

Q: What if my child has allergies? 

People who experience seasonal allergies or other COVID-19-like symptoms due to an existing health condition can still go to school when they are experiencing these symptoms, as long as the symptoms are occurring as they typically do. 

If there is a change in severity of the symptoms, however, the province says it is advisable to seek advice from a health-care provider and consider staying at home or keeping your child at home. 

Q: What happens if someone develops COVID symptoms at school?

If someone develops COVID symptoms at school, they will be given a mask and isolated away from their classmates and colleagues. 

Parents/guardians will be contacted. They will be asked to pick up their child as soon as possible after notification. 

Cleaning staff will clean and disinfect the space where the student was separated and any areas recently used by them (e.g., classroom, bathroom, common areas).

The school will immediately inform public health of the potential case.

The student/staff member should not return to school until they have been assessed by a health-care provider for COVID-19 and their symptoms have resolved.

Q: What happens if someone in my learning group has COVID-19?

If there is a confirmed COVID-19 case within a learning group, public health will reach out and identify any potential further cases. They will get in touch with close contacts and recommend 14-day isolation if necessary. They will continue to provide follow-up recommendations as necessary. 

Schools and public health officials will decide whether or not to suspend in-class learning.

Any students who are required to self-isolate will get learning support from their school.

Q: Will there be public notification when there's a COVID-19 case at a school? 

At her Sept. 10 news conference, Dr. Bonnie Henry said public notification will occur if and when there is an outbreak. 

"If there's no transmission event in the school or there's no exposure when somebody is infectious in the school, then that is not considered an outbreak. That is not considered a school case," she said. 

Henry says local health officers will be working with the school, so every family, every school community is aware that there may be a case in their school. 

If there is a possible exposure, she said, some of the learning group may have to be quarantined for a period of time depending on the type of exposure and how many people had close contact. That would be part of an investigation that health authorities conduct at schools. 

"An outbreak would be when we see transmission between people at the school setting, and extra, additional measures have to take place. And that is what we will be reporting publicly to everybody if and when we have an outbreak."

Q: Is there a scenario where schools shut down completely? 

Dr. Bonnie Henry says it would be very dire circumstances that would prompt a complete closure of the school system. However, there is a scenario of an individual school shutting down if the number of teachers and administrators in quarantine left insufficient staff for the regular operation of the school.

"If that happens I could foresee, potentially, a school having to close," Henry said. "Those are the things we want to avoid ... by doing the right things to prevent that scenario from happening."

Q: What happens to tournaments and festivals? 

For now, there will be no inter-school events like competitions, tournaments and festivals. There will be a reassessment in mid-fall.

Q: Can extracurricular sports and clubs still take place?

Yes, if they are all within the same learning group. If they all belong to different learning groups, physical distancing must be maintained between the members.

The province has addressed these and other questions in B.C.'s Back to School Plan here