British Columbia

As B.C. students return to school, parents ⁠and teachers wrestle with 1st-day jitters

For teachers, expanding to a much larger number of in-class students while also continuing to provide online learning at home has been a significant job.

Thousands of children went back to class Monday for the first time since March

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

It was a relatively easy decision for Dean McGee to send his children back to high school in Surrey, B.C., on Monday.

Online learning has worked well enough at home but the opportunity to return to something closer to "normal,'' if only for a few weeks, was attractive.

"My kids are doing OK with their actual studies at home if I'm right there to help them or if my wife is right there to help them, but they're definitely missing the classroom component. Plus, we're all ready to get out of the house a little,'' he said.

"So, when I heard about two weeks ago that the plan was to start going back, we started looking into it and trying to find out exactly what that was going to mean.''

Two of McGee's children were among thousands who returned to classrooms Monday for the first time since the pandemic forced schools to close in March.

Attendance is optional and, with only a few weeks left before the end of the term, many are looking at this as a soft start to identify possible challenges ahead of a potential full return in September.

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said on Saturday the reopening will cause some anxiety, but it will help the province plan for a larger restart in the fall. She urged those who do not feel comfortable to return to continue with online learning.

Students outside Lynn Valley Elementary in North Vancouver on their first day back at school since March. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

About 5,000 students, including the children of essential workers and those needing extra support, have already been attending school across the province.

Expanding to a much larger number while also continuing to provide online learning at home has been a significant job, said Stephanie Higginson, president of the B.C. School Trustees Association.

In the weeks since the health and safety guidelines were released, districts have had to find ways to make them fit into each school environment.

"It's like a game of Whack-A-Mole,'' she said.

But with the first school day more than halfway through, Higginson said she hadn't received any reports of things going sideways.

A worker is seen cleaning the seats of the auditorium at Eric Hamber Secondary school in Vancouver on March 23. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

The planning and preparation that has gone into reopening schools appears to have paid off, she said.

The biggest challenge is convincing families that it's safe.

"What's making international or national news isn't necessarily relevant in B.C. because we've done so well,'' she said.

Higginson has been fielding many questions from parents relating to the COVID-19 situation in the United States, or how it's unfolded in Italy or South Korea, she said.

In Quebec, the province's education department announced that at least 41 staff and students tested positive for the novel coronavirus in the first two weeks after elementary schools outside the Montreal area reopened.

But Higginson said what happens in other jurisdictions aren't foregone conclusions in B.C.

"Our context is very different," she said.

1st day brings nerves, relief

Stelly's Secondary School in Saanich, B.C., published a video walking tour of the school on the weekend. A vice-principal walked down corridors halved with yellow tape for one-way walking and warned students that it may take longer to get where they're going, but it will be safer.

Vancouver school district superintendent Suzanne Hoffman said the first day was going "incredibly well.''

"I think when we started the day, certainly there was a degree of anxiety and nerves. But certainly, as the day unfolded, that has been replaced by the excitement of the kids being back in school, the relief that everything went as planned,'' she said.

About 42 per cent of Vancouver families surveyed said they were planning to return and a little under that number attended, she said.

From a planning perspective, that made it easier to handle, Hoffmann said.

For McGee, who is also a member of the Surrey District Parents Advisory Council, the decision to send his kids Monday was worth it.

They came home reporting only three kids in one class, and math class outdoors. His youngest said he got lots of work done and his middle child had a learner support teacher session in the library that was staffed with two teachers for five kids.

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

While he has heard some parents complain that their kids are being used as guinea pigs, McGee doesn't agree. The reopening of schools has coincided with the reopening of many elements of society, including restaurants and other businesses.

But he said there were a few kinks in the change to online learning, like some students having difficulty logging in to online portals, and now is the time to figure those things out for the fall.

"If September still isn't back to 100 per cent, then they will have this couple of weeks to try to figure out how it's going to go,'' he said.

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