British Columbia

Some B.C. students and teachers hesitant about return to school after holidays

More than 40,000 people have signed a petition calling on the province to pause in-class learning for two weeks — something several other provinces have done in a bid to lower infection rates after the holidays.

Province says COVID-19 transmission in schools is low but parents say more can be done to keep students safe

Rosemary Cooper and her children Oliver, left, and Adrian. Cooper, who lives in East Vancouver, says she is ready to send her kids back to school because it's better than virtual learning, which did not work for her family. (Briar Stewart/CBC)

Some B.C. parents are concerned about sending their kids back to school tomorrow without more precautions in place to protect against the spread of COVID-19.

More than 40,000 people have signed a petition calling on the province to pause in-class learning for two weeks — something several other provinces have done in a bid to lower infection rates after the holidays.

Dr. Amy Tan, a physician and organizer with Masks For Canada, isn't sure whether she will be sending her 11-year-old son back to school in Victoria tomorrow.

She doesn't believe the province has released enough information about recent spread of COVID-19 for parents to make an informed decision, and wants to see more precautions in place in classrooms, considering a new variant of the coronavirus has reached B.C.

"If schools were to reopen the same way that they did prior to the holiday, I am concerned," she said.

"Because there's no mask mandate in classrooms, there's no discussion of looking at ventilation. I think the ship has sailed with regards to reducing class sizes, but there are other things we can do."

Tan wants the province to provide data on positivity rates locally as well as within the province. She also wants to see asymptomatic and more general, widespread testing in schools.

70 per cent of B.C. schools have had no COVID-19 exposure

On Dec. 31, Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said there was no need to delay school after the holidays and that a task force was working to ensure a safe return.

In an email, Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside said decisions about any changes to school timelines would be made under the provincial health officer's direction. 

Provincial data shows that 70 percent of B.C. schools haven't had COVID-19 exposure and that just 12 percent of cases in the province are among school-aged children. 

Rosemary Cooper, a mother in East Vancouver, doesn't believe her 9-year-old son's school has had any cases of COVID-19. She's ready to send her son back to Grade 4 because it outweighs the alternatives.

"The frustrating thing is that there is not a decent choice. The virtual learning for us was absolute hell," Cooper said.

Cooper said balancing full-time work between two parents while trying to do virtual learning back in the spring is not something anyone in her family wants to revisit.

"We were totally exhausted and our kids didn't like it and by the end they were totally disengaged ...  my children couldn't wait to get back to school," she said.

Still, in the back of her mind, there's a lingering concern that other families may have expanded their social connections over the holidays. Because of that, she's asking her son to wear a mask everywhere at school for the first two weeks — even though, being in elementary school, he is not technically required to. 

"We've got more cases on a daily basis here than we used to," Cooper said. "So there's just a part of me that thinks it would just make sense for the first couple of weeks."

Dr. Amy Tan isn't sure whether she will be sending her 11-year-old son back to school in Victoria tomorrow because she's concerned there aren't enough safety precautions being taken in classrooms. (Briar Stewart/CBC)

It's those kinds of decisions teacher Jennifer Heighton wishes were more widespread.

She teaches grades four and five in Coquitlam and is concerned about going back to school and the unknowns ahead of her.

"There is concern among parents and teachers that with potential socializing and activities that happened over the break ... that going remote for the first week would have actually been a way to just make sure that transmission from holiday activities wasn't happening," she said. 

She is concerned about the new coronavirus variant and the inability to physically distance in classrooms, where she says desks are less than one metre apart.

If in-class learning can't be delayed, she feels there should at least be more mandatory safety measures. She keeps her windows open every day and her students wear masks, and believes these practices are key to keeping students and staff safe. 

"I'd like to see mandated masks in all grades," she said. 

"I am aware that this is not the case in all schools across the province. This is why it is important that it be set as a mandate and measures are actually encouraged a lot more so that it's consistent."

Several provinces, including Ontario, have delayed the return to in-class learning until Jan. 11. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

With files from Briar Stewart

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