British Columbia

B.C.'s largest school district unveils plans for back-to-class learning in September

Jordan Tinney, Surrey school district superintendent, on mandatory masks, cohorts and what secondary students' schedules will look like in September.

Surrey superintendent says district ready to submit plan to province on Aug. 21

Surrey student Tommy Tran shares sanitizer with his friends near Sullivan Heights Secondary School on March 9, shortly before in-class learning was suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This September, students will be grouped into cohorts of their peers to reduce the risk of spreading the disease. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

B.C. school districts are submitting their back-to-school plans to the province this week and the superintendent of the Surrey district — the province's largest — has given a sneak peek at what the fall term is expected to look like for both elementary and secondary students in the city.

B.C. Education Minister Rob Fleming announced a gradual restart of classes in September, with students divided into cohorts of their peers — a cluster of 60-120 students that is meant to allow for social interaction, while limiting the potential for widespread COVID-19 transmission.

Surrey school district superintendent Jordan Tinney said the main focus of Surrey's back-to-class plan is to keep those cohort sizes as small as possible.

Tinney said secondary students in Grades 10-12 will only have 30 peers in their cohort and students in Grades 8 and 9 will have 60.

September schedules

These small groups will be achieved with a new timetable schedule that breaks up the day into two long blocks of instruction for secondary students, Tinney said. One of those blocks is in the classroom and the other will be primarily online.

Tinney said Grade 8 and 9 students will have both blocks in the classroom, and therefore will have twice the cohort size as their senior peers.

The cohorts will change after 10 weeks, when a new term starts.

"I'm not going to say it's not going to be a challenge," said Tinney on CBC's The Early Edition on Tuesday, adding siblings and young couples and friends could be separated as the cohorts will be determined by the courses students have chosen for their timetables.

Students at L.A. Matheson Secondary in Surrey, B.C. gather in a hallway prior to the pandemic. In the district’s draft plans for September, secondary schools will implement staggered start, break, lunch and dismissal times to limit numbers of students in common areas such as hallways. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

He said there is bound to be some early kinks to iron out because senior students often drop and switch courses in the first few weeks of a term.

According to Tinney, there were 32,000 course changes in the district last September and this expected shuffling means settling secondary students into cohorts could take longer than it will for elementary students.

Tinney said he expects elementary students to know their cohorts by Sept. 14.

While he did not specify the size of the youngest students' cohorts, he did say all supports will be in place for elementary school students to return to class for full time in-person instruction.

"We want the kids in school, that's the first and foremost thing," said Tinney.

A statement from the Surrey school district said details of the elementary plan will be shared next week. 

All staff and students in B.C. middle and secondary schools will have to wear masks in areas where physical distancing cannot be maintained, such as on school buses, according to the provincial government. (Brynn Anderson/Associated Press)

Health and safety measures

Tinney said he wants students to know from the get-go about the importance of physical distancing and the provincial mandate that masks must be worn wherever distancing is not possible.

To help with this, Surrey secondary schools will implement staggered start, break and dismissal times to limit hallway interactions. The district plan also includes controlled traffic flow, regular hand-washing and enhanced cleaning of buildings.

The Ministry of Education announced Monday that masks will be required in high-traffic areas like buses and in common areas like hallways.

A ministry news release says students and staff  will still have to physically distance from people outside their designated learning group, even if they are wearing a mask.

Students who cannot wear masks for medical reasons will be exempted from the new guidelines.

"The health and safety of staff and students remains our top priority as we prepare to resume in-class instruction," said Laurie Larsen, chair of the Surrey Board of Education, in a statement.

All B.C. school districts must submit their education plans to the province for approval by Friday. The plans are expected to be released to the public on Aug. 26.

Larsen is asking for parents to wait until the final plan is released before making any decisions as she expects the plan to address many of their concerns. 

But she says she understands some students will not return because of underlying health conditions.

"This pandemic is unpredictable, but we're committed to communicating regularly with our school community as we work together to safely support student learning," said Larsen.

To hear the complete interview with Surrey school district superintendent Jordan Tinney tap here.

With files from The Early Edition

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