B.C. officials promising 'near normal' back-to-school in September
No more cohorts; expected return of sports, extracurricular activities among parts of plan revealed Thursday
B.C. officials say September's return to school will be near normal, with students no longer organized into cohorts and an expected return of sports, drama and other extracurricular activities.
The plans being laid out now hinge on projections that most adults and children will be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by the new school year, according to Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry.
"The reason we can do this is because we have safe and effective vaccines protecting people across British Columbia," said Henry.
"Our goal in particular for our schools is to get to the point that we can take the same approach that we do now with other communicable diseases like influenza or measles, where we can manage them on a local and individual basis without having those broad impacts on society that we have had in this past year."
Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside said a decision on whether students in Grade 4 and higher will still have to wear masks will be made later this summer, in accordance with public health guidelines.
Whiteside said expectations remain that students and staff complete a daily health check, stay home if sick and continue to practise good hand hygiene.
Unlike several other provinces, students in B.C. stayed in classrooms throughout the school year with various safety measures in place.
School back in session Sept. 7
The first day of the B.C. 2021-22 school year is Sept. 7, the day after Labour Day — the same day the province is expected to enter Step 4 of its reopening plan. It includes a return to regular social interactions and personal choice in mask wearing.
A new, one-time amount of $25.6 million was announced to support the back-to-school plan, with $14.4 million of it going to cleaning, improved ventilation and restocking supplies of personal protective equipment.
On the issue of ventilation in schools, Whiteside said school districts have already done a significant amount of work and that upgrades were continuing.
First Nations students, the First Nations education steering committee and Métis Nation B.C. will receive $5 million.
Another $5 million is going to mental health services and $1.2 million to independent schools.
Henry said officials will continue to actively monitor schools for COVID-19 and other infectious diseases. She said students who are not fully immunized pose a low risk in the school setting.
"Even if young children are not immunized, we know that they... aren't going to be infected as often, that they are protected from the adults and older children around them [who are] protected, and they are less likely to have severe effects from COVID," said Henry.
Darren Danyluk, president of the B.C. Principals' and Vice-Principals' Association, said Thursday's news was received positively by members.
"It's an optimistic point of view and somewhat relieving to hear that we would return to even near normal after the year that we've just been through," he said.
In particular, he is happy to see cohorts would no longer be required for students.
"It was difficult to manage and put in place, and restricting in many fashions," he said.
Call for transparency on vaccination rates
Speaking earlier on Thursday, Teri Mooring, president of the B.C. Teachers' Federation, called for a degree of transparency on vaccination rates.
"We'll need to see the rates for older students and we'll need to see the regional breakdowns as well, because what we're seeing right now in the province is that there are certain areas that are really lagging behind," she said on CBC's The Early Edition earlier in the day.
Advocates said the plan will also need to accommodate students with special needs or students who are at higher risk from severe disease from COVID-19.
"Families who have children who are immunocompromised or who have family members who are [immunocompromised] are very concerned about a return to so-called normal and the way that things were previously," said BCEdAccess founder and chair Tracy Humphreys.
Whiteside said the online teaching that was introduced during the height of the pandemic would end with regular, non-COVID-related online programs continuing as normal.
LISTEN | Principals' association president Darren Danyluk says he's optimistic for the upcoming school year
With files from Rhianna Schmunk