B.C. announces part-time, voluntary return to school June 1
Gradual reopening will pave the way for a full-time return to classes in September, says premier
B.C. Premier John Horgan says some children will start to return to classrooms on a part-time, voluntary basis beginning June 1.
The gradual reopening will apply to all students from kindergarten to Grade 12. Schools will have to abide by rigorous cleaning procedures and follow provincial health guidelines, he said.
"These steps will pave the way for a full start back in September," Horgan said.
B.C. schools were closed to in-class learning March 17 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. There are currently 5,000 students still in physical classrooms, including the children of essential workers and students who need extra support.
Education Minister Rob Fleming said physical distancing and remote learning have been necessary, but difficult, for many children.
"The last two months have been a challenge for all of us," Fleming said. "Kids learn better around their peers."
Fleming also acknowledged that not having in-person classes has been a struggle for parents who have stayed or returned to work. However, he said some students have thrived in online learning, which he called a "brand-new delivery model that we created out of thin air."
The number of students in class will be limited, Fleming said, as will the number of hours. Start times and breaks will be staggered throughout the day to encourage physical distancing.
Elementary schools will be limited to 50 per cent in-class instruction, while middle and secondary schools will be limited to 20 per cent in-class instruction, or one day a week.
Where possible, students will stay with the teachers they had before changes were put in place because of the pandemic, Fleming said.
The partial gradual reopening will give graduating students an opportunity to reconnect with their classmates and teachers before saying goodbye and moving on to the next phase of their lives.
The province will not be extending the school year, he said, but is making plans for summer school offerings.
Hand-washing, self-monitoring required
Teri Mooring, president of the B.C. Teachers Federation, said the union consulted with the government and health officials on the school plan.
"We worked very hard to ensure that very high standards of health and safety were in place,'' Mooring said.
"We know that that was the most important thing to teachers and families.''
Mooring said there are some concerns about the availability of personal protective equipment. Teachers and students will have the option of wearing personal protective equipment in classrooms, including masks, but the union wants a large enough supply at schools for all those who request it.
Fleming said schools will look "significantly different" than they did before the pandemic.
Everyone will be required to wash their hands as soon as they enter school property, while staff, parents and students will need to do a daily health assessment and stay home if they feel unwell.
"People who are showing signs of illness should not come to work," he said.
Paul Faoro, the B.C. president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, represents support staff at the schools including teaching assistants, bus drivers and custodians.
"Our custodians have been working very long hours making sure our schools are clean," Faoro said.
He says safety is always a concern, and his union has pushed hard for more support staff — like daytime custodians — to ensure schools are ready.
All school boards and independent schools will have to submit their operational plans to the Ministry of Education before they reopen.
Online learning will continue for students who choose to stay home. Fleming said parents can expect to hear details on a local level by May 22.
'Waiting for details'
James Taylor, a parent and a member of the District Parent Advisory Council in Saanich, said the move makes sense for the overall picture, but he says how things will roll out is still unknown.
"I'm waiting for details. Everyone is waiting for details," Taylor said.
For example, he said, take the simple task of hand washing. One elementary school in Saanich has faucets that need to be pressed continuously in order to work.
"Everyone is doing the best that they can at all levels," he said. "[But] it's just a huge logistical task."
Dan Davies, the B.C. Liberal party's education critic, said the plan didn't provide enough information about how schools will function and on the supply of safety equipment.
"Today's announcement did not provide the certainty that parents and teachers were hoping as once again, the government has issued a plan that provides general guidelines but raises more questions than answers,'' said Davies in a statement.
With files from Canadian Press, All Points West, On The Coast