British Columbia

Some teachers returning to classrooms as early as May 11, as B.C. schools plan gradual reopening

School districts across B.C. are drafting up plans to reopen, with teachers returning to classrooms as early as next week in some parts of the province.

Prince George teachers expected to return next week; Vancouver School Board sends staff availability survey

Teachers in Prince George have been told all work-from-home agreements will expire on May 11. (Syda Productions/Shutterstock)

School districts across B.C. are drafting plans to reopen, with teachers returning to classrooms as early as next week in some parts of the province.

The Vancouver School Board has sent out a workforce availability survey to its staff, according to a note sent out by the Vancouver Elementary School Teachers Association.

The information gathered will be used for a broader plan to gradually reopen schools.

The association said no decisions have been made about the timelines or the format for returning to school, and no decisions will be made without further input from Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry.

The Vancouver School Board is in the early stages of outlining plans to have teachers and some students return to classrooms. (Nicolas Amaya/CBC)

While outlining plans to ease restrictions provincewide, Premier John Horgan said B.C. is preparing for a full resumption by September. In the meantime, Horgan said classrooms would open their doors to more students by next month.

"We want to make sure we can do a dry run from the beginning of June to the end of June. We're not anticipating a big increase in in-class learning until after the long weekend," said Horgan, noting that the province will unveil further details in the coming weeks.

B.C. schools were closed March 17 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The province has said it will prioritize classroom space for children of essential workers.

"We want to make sure we can safely get kids back into classrooms. It's not just about reading, writing and arithmetic," said Horgan. "School is a place of joy for many people ... but we want to make sure that's done safely."

B.C. Premier John Horgan said at a Wednesday news briefing that the province will ramp-up classroom learning in June, but a full resumption of classes isn't expected until September. (Mike McArthur/CBC)

The Vancouver School Board has already begun the process of welcoming students back to schools, opening in-person instruction for students with "exceptionally high learning needs" who depend on face-to-face interaction.

According to the Education Ministry, there are currently 5,000 students in physical classrooms, including the children of essential workers and students who need extra support.

"We know there is no substitute for in-class instruction and as we continue to take steps toward recovery, it's important that we get kids back into the classroom," a ministry spokesperson said in an email.

"We will gradually increase in-class learning for some students before the end of the school year. This will not be mandatory, and parents continue to have a choice to send their children to school." 

Prince George teachers to return

In Prince George, teachers in School District 57 are expected to be back in classrooms Monday, according to a letter sent to staff.

In the letter from superintendent Anita Richardson, staff are told all work-from-home agreements are expiring as of May 11, and anyone who is able to work on-site is expected to do so.

"We have been working under a philosophy that if someone was able to complete meaningful work from home, they should," the letter states. "Starting on Monday, May 11, we are transitioning to an evolved way of thinking where everyone capable of working on-site should be doing so."

D.P. Todd Secondary School in Prince George, B.C. (Andrew Kurjata/CBC)

Gradual reopening

Richardson says it will be up to individual schools and principals to develop safe work protocols, and anyone who feels unable to return to classrooms should bring it up with their supervisor.

"We just felt this was a good time to start having a strategy of more employees on-site than off-site," she said in an interview with CBC News. "And we feel really confident about the safe work sites we have created."

Some staff have already been returning to schools to support roughly 200 students who have been selected for in-classroom learning, and Richardson said she expects that number to increase to roughly 600 in the week ahead.

But some teachers are questioning the push to have the majority of staff return to work with just six days notice.

Prince George District Teacher's Association president Joanne Hapke said the directive came as a surprise to the roughly 1,000 teachers in the district. She said when they received the email Tuesday night, her inbox immediately lit up with concerns.

"There's a lot of teachers who are saying, 'I feel like a guinea pig,' " she said. "Other people are being told to stay at home, socially distance, but we're being told to enter the school building."

Cariboo teachers already back, other districts waiting

But elsewhere in the province, the majority of teachers are already back in the classroom.

Murray Helmer, the teachers' association president for School District 27, estimated about 70 per cent of teachers in the Williams Lake and 100 Mile House areas have been working on-site since spring break ended.

The majority of teachers in Quesnel's District 28 have been working from schools, as well.

A limited number of staff will also be returning to work next week in the North Okanagan-Shuswap School District.

"We have been discussing several options with principals, operations staff, and union reps and will be taking a more invitational approach to staff return for the week of May 11," said superintendent Peter Jory in an email to CBC News.

Many other districts in the province are waiting on further information from the the provincial health officer before making any decisions to recall teachers.

A spokesperson for Surrey's school district, the largest in B.C., told CBC News there was no firm timeline for a reopening, but said staff have been outlining preliminary plans.

Representatives from a multitude of districts declined requests for an interview. District officials from Chilliwack, Richmond, Abbotsford, Burnaby, Maple Ridge and North Vancouver did say they would be taking direction from the Ministry of Education in the coming days.

An official from School District 73 Kamloops-Thompson said they weren't anticipating a full return to classroom learning until at least September.

With files from Tina Lovgreen

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