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  • Tracy Sherlock

School will return full time in September, but teachers say plan needs more work

Rob Fleming, minister of education, and Dr. Bonnie Henry, provincial health officer, announce the plan to restart full-time school in September. (B.C. government photo)

The province is planning to have children attend school full-time in September, but teachers say the plan needs more work to keep everyone safe.

The negative consequences of school closures can be lifelong for some children, which is why B.C. has been working towards reopening schools since the pandemic was announced, said Dr. Bonnie Henry, the province’s provincial health officer.

“We know that children who have fallen behind may never make up both the economic and the educational impacts of that for them and for their families and their communities can last for many years,” Dr. Henry said. “Schools are essential, not only to our economy, but our society and our community and this is the safest way that we can move forward.”

Since covid-19 hit, there has been an increase in anxiety and other mental health issues for young people and young families have had challenges managing children at home, she said.

B.C.’s Minister of Education Rob Fleming said the plan is for full-time, in-person learning, but students will be arranged in groups that don’t mingle with other groups, including at recess or lunch. In elementary and middle schools, the groups would be as big as 60 people, including students and staff. In secondary schools they would be up to 120 people.

"The classroom is an essential part of a child's social, academic and mental development, and that's why we are working hard to ensure students can safely spend the next school year with their teachers and classmates," Fleming said.

But the B.C. Teachers’ Federation says the plan misses the mark.

“As a teacher, parent, grandparent, and President of the BCTF, I agree that we need to get back to in-person learning,” said BCTF president Teri Mooring. “(T)he imperative to get students back into schools needs to be balanced with health and safety considerations in the context of how schools actually function. Based on what the government released today, their plan isn’t ready yet. It needs more work.”

The BCTF would like to see the health and safety measures in place and tested before students return to class, they would like to see time and training for teachers to prepare, they would like to see smaller classes to allow physical distancing and they would like to see more details about the cohort model.

One part of the announcement Mooring is happy with is that the province will provide $45.6 million to school districts for increased cleaning, more hand-washing stations and the purchase of masks.

The return to school is mandatory for students. Parents who don’t want to send their child back to school have the option of online distributed learning programs or homeschooling. Last week, nearly half of B.C. parents surveyed said they didn’t know yet if they would send their children back to school, a Leger and Association for Canadian Studies poll found. Forty per cent said yes and 12 per cent said they will keep their children home. In June, about one-third of students attended when schools reopened part-time.

Children who are immune-compromised should work with their doctor and their school district to make special arrangements, said Dr. Bonnie Henry, provincial health officer.

If a student or teacher tests positive for covid-19, the response will depend on where the transmission occurred, Dr. Henry said. If it occurs outside of school, it may not affect the cohort, but a worst-case-scenario would be that the entire cohort needs to self-isolate for two weeks, she said.

The cohort model will require changes to how secondary schools create their timetables. In many high schools, students take eight courses at once, all year. But under the cohort model, that could be cut into two semesters of four courses each or even four 10-week terms of two courses each.

In elementary schools, it isn’t clear how specialist teachers, like English language teachers or learning resource teachers, or other staff like education assistants for students with special needs, will be part of cohorts. Also, when asked how substitute teachers will be handled, Minister Fleming said there is special consideration in the guidelines, but gave no details.

School districts must post their plans by August 26.

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