British Columbia

Here's what you need to know as B.C. schools reopen

Today marks a milestone in B.C.'s gradual COVID-19 reopening plan: K-12 students can return to school.  Here's what today might look like for returning staff and students. 

Health checks, handwashing, and hesitancy: class is back in session but it looks a lot different

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry acknowledges going back to school might be anxiety-provoking for some, but says she believes it's now safe. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

Today marks a milestone in B.C.'s gradual reopening plan: K-12 students can return to school. 

On March 17, the province ordered schools closed indefinitely for most in-class instruction at the end of spring break due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now, students across B.C. can return on a part-time, voluntary basis, but the school environment will be much different than before.

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry acknowledges today will be exciting for some and anxiety-inducing for others.

There have been 77 kids under the age of 19 who have tested positive for COVID-19 in B.C. — less than one per cent of the youth in the province, Henry said Saturday. 

Henry said she would "not be surprised" if there are one or two cases that arise in schools in the coming weeks.

"But that's OK," she said.

"We know how to deal with this, we know that it is not easily spread and we know we can prevent it by putting in place the measures that we have in our schools."

"We are ready for this and we are reopening schools because we believe it is safe to do so."

New rules

To reopen, schools had to submit health and safety plans to the province. Plans for all 60 districts have been approved and will be posted on their websites, the Ministry of Education confirmed Friday.

Schools must also abide by the provincial health officer's guidelines. This includes cleaning surfaces that are frequently touched at least twice a day, and items that cannot be easily cleaned (like fabric) need to be limited or removed.

Everyone will be required to wash their hands as soon as they enter the school, said Teri Mooring, president of the B.C. Teachers Federation. The guidelines tell schools to minimize the presence of non-staff adults, such as parents and caregivers, inside the building. Some schools are only allowing staff and students inside.

Staff, students and parents will have to do a daily health assessment. If they feel unwell, they will have to stay home.

Teachers and students will have the option of wearing personal protective equipment in class.

A video from Lord Strathcona Elementary School in Vancouver shows some of the added steps taken to ensure physical distancing, like meeting teachers outside in the morning, following floor markers inside, and sitting in desks spaced farther apart. 

Anyone driving past a school should slow down. The 30 km/hr school zone and playground zone speed limits are back in effect between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. on school days.

Who's going back?

Between 20 to 80 per cent of students are expected to return this week on alternating days, depending on the district, the Ministry of Education said. This number also varies from school to school and classroom to classroom.

The Vancouver School Board expects 42 per cent of elementary students to return. High school students will typically attend for an hour or two a day throughout the week, based on courses, the district said. 

The number of students in class will be limited, as will the hours.

Only 50 per cent of Kindergarten to Grade 5 students will be in a school at a given time, and that number drops to 20 per cent for Grades 6 to 12, the Ministry of Education said. 

Start times and breaks could be staggered to encourage physical distancing.

A sample schedule from the Burnaby School District shows Kindergarten to Grade 5 students will be able to return two days a week, while students in Grades 6 to 7 can return one day a week.

The province is not extending the school year but is making plans to offer summer school. 

It's still not known whether B.C. schools will resume full-time in-class instruction in September.

Who's not going back?

For Ateesh Chand, the risk of sending his kids back to school for the last month of the school year outweigh the benefits.

The Surrey man's son is in Grade 9 at L.A. Matheson Secondary and his daughter is in Grade 7 at Kirkbride Elementary.

He said his kids will not be returning to school today, and possibly not until a COVID-19 vaccination is developed.

B.C.'s provincial health officer says she won't be surprised if a few cases arise after schools reopen, but the province is prepared to handle them. 1:17

Chand believes it won't be feasible to keep kids two metres apart at all times. Despite an increase in screen time, homeschooling has gone pretty well for his family, though he recognizes this has not been the experience for everyone, he said. 

"We're hoping that the schools really see the value in online learning and try to keep it as a great option," he said.

Greetje Wilderjans, a nurse in New Westminster, is confident that stringent procedures in place at schools mean they're a safe environment for kids. 

Her 12-year-old daughter was among 5,000 students, mainly children of essential workers and those who needed extra support, who were still able to go to physical classrooms over the past two months. 

She's become used to the stringent new procedures in place, and the school has been transparent and responsive to parents' questions, Wilderjans said. 

"If the community spread here in B.C. was different and if we were comparable to Ontario, I would not be quite as comfortable, to be honest. But our situation is a bit different," she said.

 

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