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  • Tracy Sherlock

B.C. school districts authorized to provide remote learning options, but no funding yet

Rob Fleming, B.C.'s minister of education, speaks about back-to-school plans. (B.C. government photo)

The federal government announced $2 billion in funding Wednesday to make schools safe during the covid-19 pandemic, but there’s no word yet on how B.C.’s share will be used.

B.C. will get $242.36 million of the federal funding, a boost of about 3.6 per cent to the province’s $6.6-billion education budget.

"Our children must be safe in the classroom -- that's non-negotiable," Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said when he announced the funding. "This year is challenging and like no other. … Once people know their kids are safe, they can get back to work with less worries."

Trudeau says he has heard from many parents who are worried about the reopening of schools and says more can be done to ease parents' anxieties.

The $2 billion is flexible and provinces can use it for what they need most, "from hand sanitizer to remote learning," Trudeau said.

The B.C. government already allocated $45.6 million for the purchase of masks for students and school staff and for extra cleaning. On Wednesday, B.C.’s Minister of Education Rob Fleming did not say what the federal money will be used for, but he did say that districts have the authority to offer remote learning options.

“I know that some families will continue to have medical or health concerns, and my expectation is that school districts will be flexible and work with families to provide remote options that keep children connected to their school community," Fleming said.

School districts will be contacting all families to confirm if they are sending their child to school or if they need an alternative learning option. Several districts have already sent out surveys.

No funding has yet been provided to districts, which all released their plans on Wednesday, to offer an online learning option. But Fleming said, “whether it’s in a remote program, or in class, … the funding is secure.”

“We want to support everyone with a good education program, no matter what option is one they make a decision in favour of for their families,” Fleming said. “I think we want to encourage those families who don’t feel ready to return to school to keep an open mind and to gather information about the safe restart to schools.”

Nearly 40,000 people have signed an online petition asking the government to provide an online option for children’s education.

“On behalf of parents, I thank the ministry, and specifically minister Fleming, for stating his clear expectations that all school districts will provide online options for parents, while ensuring all children will have the opportunity to remain connected to their school community,” said Andrea Sinclair, president of the B.C. Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils.

Another sticking point among many parents and teachers is the fact that physical distancing won’t be possible or required in the classroom, as long as the student is within their learning cohort, which could be up to 120 people.

When asked why a classroom is looked at differently than other workplaces, where physical distancing is required, Fleming said the guidelines were developed by the BC Centre for Disease Control.

“There are layers of protection in schools that are very different in a school setting,” Fleming said. “Schools are different from say, a shopping mall, because they are secure, controlled sites. They are buildings that are distributed into different configurations with many rooms.”

The B.C. Teachers' Federation urged the province to use the federal money to make physical distancing possible in classrooms.

"I know the federal government’s funding announcement was unexpected, but we should see it as a huge opportunity to work together and get things right," BCTF president Teri Mooring said. "The train has not left the station, school has not started."

In B.C., teachers return to class on September 8 and students return for orientation on September 10.

Masks will be required for older students when they are outside their cohort and cannot physically distance or when they are in crowded spaces, like hallways.

Three examples of school districts’ restart plans were given. All were similar to Vancouver’s plan, announced last week, where elementary students will attend full-time, in-person, and secondary students will attend in-person most of the time with some online learning. Throughout the province the majority of school districts are moving to a quarter system, where students take just two classes at any given time for a period of 10 weeks.

Families who do not feel ready to return to in-class instruction, but who want to stay connected to their neighbourhood school, should make sure to register as normal and let the school know, Fleming said.

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