British Columbia

B.C. principals want province to consider flexible start date for school term

The B.C. Principals’ and Vice-Principals’ Association says there are major complexities associated with a safe return to school and is stressing the need to take the time to get it right.

B.C. Principals’ and Vice-Principals’ Association stress the need to take time to get it right

The provincial government has said the majority of B.C. students will return to the classroom in September. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Take the time to get it right.

That's the message the B.C. Principals' and Vice-Principals' Association (BCPVPA) has for the provincial government regarding the current plan to return most kids to classrooms in September.

Education Minister Rob Fleming announced July 29 that students will head back to school this fall and will be organized into learning groups, or cohorts, to reduce the number of people they come into contact with.

In an Aug. 4 statement, the BCPVPA asked the province to instead consider a flexible return-to-school date, saying there are "major complexities" associated with a safe reopening during the pandemic.

The association, which represents over 2,600 members employed in B.C.'s public school system, said it hopes school districts and the government recognize the significant changes that will need to happen for a safe reopening, the need to communicate those changes to staff, and the "importance of taking the time to get it right."

Be realistic

The BCPVPA said it supports the province's return-to-school plan, but also empathizes with staff who they say have little time to prepare for a new and challenging year.

"We must all be realistic in assessing our progress in advance of the Aug. 26 deadline for districts to issue their restart plans so that parents and families can be duly notified of any adjustments, and educators and staff have the preparation time they need to welcome their students in a safe and supportive manner," said the BCPVPA.

The association is also asking for clarity from the government concerning how cohorts of students will improve school safety.

"We believe that the concept of the learning groups may require additional explanation and development in order for students, staff, families and school communities to better understand the health and safety implications," says the statement.

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has 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, said Henry.

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

"We cannot predict the future. We are planning for a number of scenarios — if there is an increase in cases, [we] will review," she said.

Most B.C. students became familiar with online learning in the spring. Parent Sarah Carol would like the province to offer online learning again in September. (Seth Wenig/Associated Press)

Parents petition for voluntary return

Almost 25,000 B.C. parents have signed a petition to make the return to class a voluntary decision for families.

Robbi Davey, who has a son in elementary school in Kamloops, said she does not want her son to return to school because of the risk she says it could pose to immune-compromised and senior family members.

"It would be a lot easier if my son could go back to school safely, but I don't think that this is a safe situation," Davey said Thursday on Daybreak Kamloops.

Davey was joined on the program by fellow Kamloops parent, Sarah Carol, who has two kids in the Kamloops school system.

Carol shares Davey's concerns, saying she relies on grandparents to provide child care to her two children and worries her children could be at risk of exposing seniors to the virus if they return to the classroom.

Carol said she would prefer a set-up similar to what the province had in June, with the option to continue online learning. She said things would run even more smoothly if teachers were only teaching online and not bouncing back and forth between the classroom and the camera.

'We need to work together': premier

Premier John Horgan, speaking to media Thursday, said he understands parents, teachers and students are anxious about returning to the classroom but added that the province is focused on starting the school year as planned in September.

"I hear you, I feel it, but we need to work together," said Horgan.

Horgan said the government has done very well slowing the spread of COVID-19 by following scientific advice, but would not put children at risk if "the danger was overwhelming." He said the next 30 days are critical.

The British Columbia Teachers' Federation has said the government's plan to fully reopen schools needs more time and a lot more work if it is going to keep everyone safe.

The premier said it's time to start opening schools so plans can be made and adjusted, and he is confident that every effort is being made to get it right.

Fleming and flexibility

B.C. Education Minister Rob Fleming, speaking Thursday on BC Today, said the ministry is committed to talking through all back-to-school concerns with a steering committee made up of teachers, support staff, principals, vice-principals and parent organizations.

"The types of thing that have been expressed by B.C. principals and vice-principals around re-opening readiness we are working on with the entire school sector," he said.

Fleming said there could be some flexibility around returning to the classroom, but districts understand that both the ministry and provincial health officials want them to be ready for a fall return.

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With files from The Canadian Press

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