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  • Tracy Sherlock

Classes will be smaller, more spread out when school reopens

Updated: May 14, 2020

Playgrounds throughout Metro Vancouver are sealed off with yellow tape. Tracy Sherlock photo.

When schools do reopen, classrooms are likely to look very different than they did before COVID-19.

Imagine much smaller class groupings, of perhaps five or six students, spread out through the school to maintain social distancing. Some classes might take place in other, closed public buildings, or students might attend in shifts. Students will probably spend more time outside and they definitely will be washing their hands more often. Cleaning will be going on constantly.

That’s what a gradual return to school this week for children younger than Grade 5 in Denmark looked like.

Shane Woodford, a former radio journalist in B.C. who now lives in Denmark with his family, shared a photo of his son, Henrik, starting grade 0 (kindergarten) on Facebook. I asked Woodford what the reopening of schools has been like.

“There are hand washing stations outside the school. Parents and kids have to wash their hands before dropping the child off,” Woodford said in a text. “Then you take turns taking your child into the building to allow social distancing. Once in, the kids are broken down into smaller groups and kept apart inside as much as possible.”

The interior of schools has to be cleaned twice a day and anything a child touches or plays with must be cleaned immediately after use. There are also strict mandates about frequent hand washing and how the kids eat, Woodford said.

Each class has been broken down into much smaller groups of about five students and they are spread out in the school, spending as much time as possible outside. The groups don’t mingle with each other, he said. The strict cleaning and spacing requirements make it onerous for schools to open and only about half of them have so far, he said. In one case, parents en masse refused to send their kids back to school, and the school then said it wasn’t worth it to open.

Older grades have not returned and Woodford said it would be a real problem to bring them back with the required spacing. To create space for social distancing, Woodford’s son’s school moved Grades four and five to the older kid’s school in a different building in a different part of town. In other parts of Denmark, schools have moved into museums and other spaces, to accommodate social distancing, he said. Some schools can’t take all of the students back, due to spacing challenges, he said.

Henrik had been attending a daycare/school called a børnehave, where the Danish children make a transition to kindergarten, with a børnehave teacher, in April each year. The school year begins in August in Denmark.

Here in B.C., reopening schools is clearly top of mind for public health leaders and politicians, who usually mention it first when asked about easing restrictions.

B.C.’s Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has said B.C. is not yet ready to reopen, but that public health experts are beginning to plan out what reopening might look like.

On Friday, the province provided graphs that show that gradually increasing our lives to between 30 and 60 per cent of normal activities should keep the spread of COVID-19 to a manageable level.

When asked what 60 per cent of normal might look like, Henry said, for example, if schools needed to bring back more healthcare workers’ children, so that hospitals could resume elective surgeries, the province would have to look at that to see how social distancing could be maintained.

“It may mean smaller classes,” Henry said. “It may mean some children going to school at certain times, none of the mingling that we used to have with kids getting together, as well as some hybrid perhaps of some children doing remote learning while others are in a classroom situation and able to maintain safe distances in that situation.”

As well as younger children, she talked about students in Grade 12, saying the province will make sure they can make the transition out of high school.

"It will be done in a way that's different, but it will be done in a way that's thoughtful," she said.

But to answer the burning question on all of our minds – when might B.C. schools and other businesses start to reopen — Health Minister Adrian Dix said Friday that there is zero chance of any change or relaxation before the end of April. He promises more modelling in the early part of May, which will be used to develop a framework for reopening.

Look for reopening schools to be one of the early priorities.

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