British Columbia

Most B.C. students to return to school full time in September

Most B.C. students from kindergarten to Grade 12 will return to class full time in September, Education Minister Rob Fleming announced Wednesday.

Teachers' union critical of plan to divide students into 'learning cohorts' of up to 120

B.C. Education Minister Rob Fleming says most elementary and secondary school students will return to classes in the fall. (Ina Fassbender/AFP/Getty Images)

The latest:

  • Most B.C. students from kindergarten to Grade 12 will return to school in the fall, divided into cohorts or "learning groups."
  • Elementary and middle school learning groups will have a maximum of 60 students.
  • Secondary school learning groups will have up to 120 students.
  • Provincial government is putting up $45.6 million to help ensure safety measures.

Most B.C. students from kindergarten to Grade 12 will return to class full time in September, Education Minister Rob Fleming announced Wednesday.

Fleming said, on the advice of provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, students will be organized into "learning groups" to reduce the number of people they come in contact with, cutting the risk of transmitting the novel coronavirus.

Henry said elementary and middle school learning groups will have a maximum of 60 students, while those in secondary school will have up to 120. Fewer students will be allowed in the learning groups for younger students, as it is more difficult for them to practise safe physical distancing and proper handwashing, she said.

Henry said students in the same learning group will have opportunities to socialize outside of the classroom in shared spaces like hallways and cafeterias, calling the plan a "balancing act" to ensure students have the opportunity for social interactions without creating an environment where the virus could rapidly spread.

The provincial government is putting up $45.6 million to ensure safety measures, including increased cleaning of high-contact surfaces, an increased number of hand-hygiene stations and the availability of masks.

'A reasonable approach'

Staff and students, or their parents, will be expected to assess themselves daily for symptoms of COVID-19. Masks will not be mandatory, but will be recommended and provided in situations where physical distancing cannot be maintained. 

Henry said she has "great confidence" in the plan, and that schools can safely reopen, as long as community transmission remains low.

"We cannot predict the future. We are planning for a number of scenarios — if there is increase in cases, [we] will review," she said, adding there is no "magic number" of cases that would cause provincial officials to re-assess their plan.

About 200,000 students went back to classes in June, which Fleming said gave officials important information on how to safely welcome students and staff back.

Henry and Fleming emphasized throughout Wednesday's news conference that there is no replacement for in-class learning, recognizing that parents trying to manage at-home education since March has put enormous strain on families.

"The impact of closing of schools can be lifelong for some children. We know there's been an increase in anxiety, in mental health issues for young people, with families that have had challenges with having children at home." said Henry.

Watch | Dr. Bonnie Henry says she doesn't necessarily expect COVID-19 cases in schools, but "I think it's inevitable there will probably be some"

B.C.'s provincial health officer says schools need to resume to avoid 'lifelong impact' on students. 1:32

"We think this is a reasonable approach. It is going to take some adjustment."

But the B.C. Teachers Federation (BCTF) says the plan requires "more time and work" and has requested more consultation with school districts and local unions.

"If the plan is rushed or too many questions are left unanswered, it won't be successful. Bringing everyone back all at once, even with some version of a cohort model on the first day after the Labour Day long weekend is too much too soon, given the many unanswered questions in today's announcement," the union said in a statement. 

"Teachers and support staff need time in September to adjust to the new structures, make sure the proper health and safety protocols work and prepare curricular resources and lessons that meet the new reality."

The BCTF also said smaller class sizes are needed to maintain physical distancing and requested more clarity on how the cohort model will keep teachers and students safe.

However, B.C.'s Liberal party says the back-to-school plan fails to provide leadership and clarity for parents and teachers.

"Dr. Bonnie Henry and health officials are doing excellent work to ensure students and staff are safe, but NDP Education Minister Rob Fleming's decision to download responsibility onto school districts is just creating more uncertainty for parents, students and teachers," said Dan Davies, the B.C. Liberal education critic.

Parents wary 

A recent poll suggests many parents are on the fence about sending their kids back to school at all.

The poll by Leger and the Association for Canadian Studies found 40 per cent of B.C. parents would send their kids back to school if there was some kind of classroom instruction at least a few days a week — lower than the national average of 59 per cent.

Students are welcomed back to school with physical distancing protocols in place at Lynn Valley Elementary in North Vancouver on June 1. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

In B.C., 48 per cent of parents said they were still undecided.

The online poll of more than 1,500 people took place over the past weekend. It cannot be given a margin of error because it is not a random sample.

The poll also found more than 80 per cent of people were in favour of mandatory temperature checks for students and mandatory masks for teachers.

About the Author

Michelle Ghoussoub

@MichelleGhsoub

Michelle Ghoussoub is a journalist with CBC News in Vancouver. She has previously reported in Lebanon and Chile. Reach her at michelle.ghoussoub@cbc.ca or on Twitter @MichelleGhsoub.

With files from Tina Lovgreen and The Canadian Press

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