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  • Tracy Sherlock

Tomorrow’s the big day – more students return to B.C. schools

Chief Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry provides an update on COVID-19 on May 30, 2020. (Photo from B.C. government.)

Teachers are anxious about schools reopening, but the province’s top doctor says it will be safe.

Some teachers have expressed concerns about the impossibility of keeping physical distance with young children, the lack of personal protective equipment and the risk of being in enclosed indoor spaces with other people for long periods of time.

Even B.C.’s Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry says she won't be surprised if some cases arise out of schools opening, but that the province knows how to manage it.

“We are ready for this and are re-opening schools because it is safe to do so,” Dr. Henry said in her Saturday briefing. “We know that COVID-19 has a very low infection rate in children, and children have milder symptoms. We also know that transmission in children, and between adults and children mostly occurs in household settings, not in schools, or playgrounds.”

Given that almost 70 per cent of the world’s children have been out of school since shortly after the pandemic started, I’m not entirely convinced, but Dr. Henry is the doctor, not me.

Elementary school aged children have the option to return to school for two days a week, while older children have the option to return one day a week. In Vancouver, 42 per cent of students have said they will be returning, Vancouver School Board superintendent Suzanne Hoffman said in a video update. Every district is organizing the logistics of how their schedule will work, but in some districts elementary school aged children will attend either Monday and Tuesday or Wednesday and Thursday.

Dr. Henry says the June 1 timing was chosen so there was enough time to see the effects of reopening services like restaurants and hair salons in mid-May.

"We have purposely timed the re-opening for two weeks after the start of phase two to make sure we could proceed safely,” Henry said. “Had there been a significant increase in new cases, schools would not be opening.”

There are still many unknowns with covid-19.

One concern has to be a mysterious inflammatory syndrome, seen in children in New York, Montreal and Europe, now being called multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MISC.) This week, Henry said there are some possible cases being investigated in children in B.C., but she stressed the syndrome is rare and not a lot is known about it.

As of Friday, May 29, there had been 77 covid-19 cases in B.C. in children under 19 years of age. That’s about three per cent of cases. Of those, only three children have been hospitalized and none have required intensive care or have died.

Henry is confident that even teachers and other school staff who are in high-risk groups will be safe.

“I understand some of you are concerned about your own underlying medical conditions, about compromised immune systems or maybe being older, but please be assured that if any of these apply to you, or if you live with someone with any of these conditions, schools can and are a safe space with the extra precautions that we have in place,” Henry said in a message to teachers.

BC Teachers’ Federation President Teri Mooring also tried to reassure teachers about health and safety and urged them to report anything that is unsafe.

“The BCTF and our local associations across the province have been working extremely hard to ensure school districts have done what they need to do to ensure schools are safe for teachers, support staff, and students,” Mooring said in her message.

Accommodations are available to teachers who have medically documented reasons they cannot return to schools, Mooring said. She also addressed teachers’ concerns over having to teach in schools as well as online, saying teachers will not be required to do both at the same time.

“This may mean a significant reduction of remote learning for students who do not return to school,” Mooring said.

She urged teachers to look after their own mental health.

“This is a time of high anxiety and stress for everyone,” Mooring said. “You can only do so much and taking care of yourself and your loved ones is the most important thing you can do as we all readjust to yet another phase of this pandemic.”

Starting school now for a short period of four weeks before summer holidays may seem like a waste of time to some, but Henry says it is a cautious approach designed to give teachers and students some experience for a possible full-scale reopening in the fall.

"This is the right time to make this happen,” Henry says.

Only time will tell if she’s right.

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