British Columbia

Students are heading back to class in September. Here's what that could look like

Many of the details about how students, teachers and staff can safely return to class are still in the works, and we'll be learning more in the coming weeks — but for now, we try to provide answers to some of your most pressing questions about the preparations.

How will 'learning groups' work? What happens if a student tests positive? Answers to your questions and more

When students headed back to school this September, parental anxiety spiked as teachers shifted to in-class learning with larger class sizes than the previous return in June, when only a third of students came back. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Most students in B.C. will be heading back to classes full time in September — a long-awaited announcement that is both a relief and anxiety inducing for families who spent much of the spring trying to balance at-home learning and full-time jobs.

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry announced the plan in a news conference on July 29, saying that ensuring students can get back to school has been a priority since the start of the pandemic and that closing schools can have "lifelong" impacts on some students.

Many of the details about how students, teachers and staff can safely return to class are still in the works, and we'll be learning more in the coming weeks — but for now, here are answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about how the province is preparing to open schools this fall.

How do 'learning groups' work?

A key detail of the provincial plan announced Wednesday is the division of students into cohorts or "learning groups" to allow for social interaction, while limiting the potential for widespread transmission.

B.C.'s plan says that students and staff will not be expected to maintain a two-metre physical distance from each other within their learning groups, but they will need to do so when interacting with anyone else. Federal guidance for schools, which provinces are not required to follow, recommends establishing two-metre buffers between people "where possible."

Elementary and middle school learning groups will have a maximum of 60 students, while those in secondary school will have up to 120. Henry explained that 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.

Students in the same learning group won't necessarily all be in the same classrooms, but they will have opportunities to socialize in shared spaces like playgrounds, hallways, cafeterias and gymnasiums. 

A number of different measures will be brought in to ensure students don't interact with others outside their learning group, like staggered recess, lunch hours and transition time between classes. For example, in elementary schools, three classrooms may take recess at the same time.

The 60 and 120 student numbers are maximums — learning groups in districts with smaller schools will have fewer students. 

How does that work with high school classes?

Many high school students in B.C. take up to eight classes throughout the school year, with courses running from September to June and final exams at the end of term. 

There is a possibility that some schools will move to different term systems, with students taking, for example, just two intensive courses for a shorter time period.

A number of different measures will be brought in to ensure students don't interact with others outside their learning group, like staggered recess and lunch hours. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

But what if a student wants to take an elective outside of their learning group?

Henry said students may be able to do so — provided that physical distancing can be maintained in that course.

Will class sizes be smaller?

There is currently no plan to reduce the size of classes, and schools are expected to accommodate the same number of students.

What about siblings — will they be in the same learning groups?

Learnings groups in most schools will be divided by grade, so it's likely that siblings will be in different cohorts. 

Will there be extra cleaning in schools?

Yes. 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.

Will children be required to wear masks?

Yes. The province says all staff and students in B.C. middle and secondary schools will have to wear masks in high-traffic areas like buses and in common areas like hallways, where physical distancing can't be maintained. 

Students who can't wear masks for medical reasons will be exempted from the new guidelines.

The province says it's providing additional funding to help school districts buy up to 1.5 million masks — enough for every public-school staff member and student to have at least two masks.

What happens if there are cases recorded in schools?

Henry said a worst-case scenario would see an entire learning group self-isolating, self-monitoring for symptoms or being tested. That's one of the purposes of the learning groups — to avoid a situation where an entire student population would be sent home and to make sure contact tracing is still efficient.

But Henry said if a student tests positive, an assessment will be conducted to see whether their interactions with others students are considered high risk. If the likelihood of spread to other students is not considered to be high, individual students could be isolated without having to send the whole cohort home. 

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

How many cases would be required for schools to shut down again?

Henry says there is no "magic number" that would trigger a second school shutdown, and that the province is planning ahead for multiple scenarios. She said the key to ensuring that schools can reopen safely is to maintain a low level of community spread throughout the province.

Henry said while some cases in school settings may be "inevitable," widespread transmission in those settings is not her primary concern.

"We know it's mostly adults that bring it into a school situation, so we'll make sure that those encounters will be done safely — but we've managed that," she said, saying there were no major school outbreaks when 200,000 students in B.C. returned to classes in June.

Will school bus service still run?

Yes — and school buses are one of the situations in which it will be advised that students wear masks, as maintaining physical distancing will be difficult.

What about band and choir?

Bands and choirs have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, as forcefully emitting particles by blowing or singing has been found to be a high-risk activity for spreading the respiratory particles that spread the virus. 

But Henry said those activities could come back in schools with some creativity — like practising outdoors or in large spaces like churches and theatres, with physical distancing.

B.C. schools were ordered closed March 17 to help stop the spread of COVID-19. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Will there be intraschool sports?

Not for now. The same goes for tournaments, schools assemblies, and any other large gathering that would see students from different learning groups interact.

Are students allowed to participate in extracurricular activities?

Asked about whether students will be able to participate in activities outside of school that may expose them to students outside of their cohort, Henry said those decisions will be up to parents who should conduct individual risk assessments.

If a student lives with high-risk people, for example, she said families may want to "scale back" on participation in extracurricular activities in the fall.

What is the plan for immunocompromised students or students who live with vulnerable adults?

This is one of the areas the province said it is still working on. For now, Henry said that parents should visit their family doctors to discuss potential risk, and that each family must conduct a personal risk assessment.

The details will be different in each district, and parents are encouraged to communicate directly with their schools about individual arrangements.

Will there be supports for students with disabilities?

The province said that all supports for students with disabilities and special needs that were in place before the pandemic will be guaranteed in the fall.

What about substitute teachers and student teachers? 

Henry said the province is currently working on plans to limit the number of students that substitute teachers interact with. The province is still drafting how student teachers who complete practicum within schools might be able to complete their work. 

When can parents expect to hear more?

Parents and students will be hearing more from school districts by Aug. 26 — that includes information about learning cohorts, class schedules, and more.


  • This story has been updated to clarify the provincial requirements for physical distancing in learning groups. Within B.C. learning groups, K-12 students and staff do not need to maintain physical distancing.
    Aug 12, 2020 10:19 AM PT


Michelle Ghoussoub

Reporter, CBC News

Michelle Ghoussoub is a television, radio and digital reporter with CBC News in Vancouver. She can be reached at or on Twitter at @MichelleGhsoub.


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