On Monday, public school’s back in session in British Columbia — if only for a month.
Students from Kindergarten to Grade 12 will return to B.C. classrooms June 1, many for the first time since March break in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. While other provinces, including Alberta and Ontario, have opted to keep schools closed for the remainder of the year, B.C. is one of the few provinces that will see students back in physical classrooms before summer break.
“These steps will pave the way for a full start back in September,” Premier John Horgan said on May 15 when announcing the planned reopening.
Around 5,000 children of essential workers and students who need extra assistance have already been in physical classrooms during the pandemic. Monday will see the optional return of thousands of remaining students.
The weeks since Horgan’s announcement have seen directives from the ministry of education and public health agencies trickle down to school boards and individual schools, as they all try to figure out how to reopen safely. As late as Friday afternoon, many schools were still in internal discussions around exact protocols.
The opening is still set to go ahead Monday, and other provinces will keep a keen eye on B.C. for developing their own strategies come September.
These steps will pave the way for a full start back in September.B.C. premier John Horgan
It’s not the first province to try out reopening. Quebec reopened elementary schools outside of Montreal two weeks ago, and since then, at least 40 staff and students have tested positive for COVID-19. The province’s chief public health officer Dr. Horatio Arruda said one elementary school was forced to close due to a number of teachers testing positive, but that some test-positive cases were to be expected.
Still, B.C. is trying to avoid that.
The province has a leg up because it has many fewer active cases of COVID-19 than Quebec. While Quebec recorded 530 new cases Friday — the lowest number since April 1 — B.C. only recorded four.
B.C.’s test-positive rates and death rates have been declining steadily since mid-April, with only 228 currently active cases of COVID-19 across the province.
Education Minister Rob Fleming said B.C. wouldn’t send students back to school unless they knew for sure it was safe.
“We’re in a very different situation here,” Fleming told HuffPost Canada when asked about comparisons to other provinces. “We wouldn’t be sending anyone back to school, students or staff, if we didn’t believe that we could do so safely and if we didn’t have the strongest medical and public health advice and plans developed by our public health agencies to guide us in doing so.”
While government officials like Fleming hesitate to use the phrase “test run,” that is in many ways what B.C.’s about to execute.
Students will return to class on an optional basis, with all essential learning still conducted remotely to accommodate students and families not comfortable or not able to return to the physical classroom, yet. It’s a space to see what students in classrooms look like and what sort of sanitation and hygiene measures will have to be in place. Then, those strategies can be refined for when the bulk of students return in September.
“This side of having a vaccine, we’re going to have to operate very differently at every level of society in every workplace,” Fleming said.
“Schools are part of that, and I think kids will learn this routine. Undoubtedly we’re gonna have to repeat exactly this routine again in the following winter of the next school year.”
So what will that routine look like specifically? While it will vary from school to school, expect some consistent measures.
Fleming said B.C. modelled its plan off of other countries that have reopened schools, including New Zealand and Germany.
As schools across New Zealand reopened in mid-May, the official advice from that country’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was to keep students one metre apart indoors and two metres apart outside.
“We do, however, know that it’s near-impossible in the early learning environment, and very challenging in schools, so staying home if you’re sick, hygiene protocols and regular cleaning become even more important,” Ardern said.
This side of having a vaccine, we’re going to have to operate very differently at every level of society in every workplace.B.C. Education Minister Rob Fleming
In B.C., teachers are already preparing by spacing desks at least two metres apart and putting tape on the floor to indicate walking directions. With warm June weather, many are planning to take class outside. The same physical distancing advice for the general public will apply to schools — students will be encouraged to wash their hands often, and not cluster in groups.
B.C. chief medical officer Dr. Bonnie Henry elaborated on B.C.’s specific measures in her daily briefings this week.
Henry said only small numbers of students will be together and that hand hygiene and “no touching” will be particularly emphasized to younger students. Younger students will be kept in small groups to avoid interacting with others, while older students may only come in once or twice a week.
And what about masks? Henry says they won’t be required.
“We don’t see non-medical masks as being required on an ongoing basis in that setting,” she said. “The other measures that we have in place are the most important ones.”
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Henry reiterated that not everyone can wear a mask, and other measures, like distancing and sanitation, are ultimately more effective.
“We know that there are some people who are not able to wear a non-medical mask, whether for medical reasons or for reasons of disability,” she said. “They are an extra tool that can be layered on above other things but it’s not something that we would require.”
B.C. Teachers’ Federation president Teri Mooring says that while she wishes there had been more time between the announcement schools would return and the actual reopening date, she’s mostly happy with the measures the government has put in place.
“The government has been very available to working with the union,” she told HuffPost. “We were certainly pushing around the health and safety standards that needed to be put in place for the return. We worked closely with the government on that. And so, that that has been very positive. And I think one of the reasons why it may work is that clear close work between us.”
But she worries that teachers might be burnt out trying to facilitate both online and in-classroom learning amid the stress of the pandemic.
“We’re in a very high-stress environment everywhere … just because of the pandemic and the impact it’s had on our lives,” she told HuffPost. “And so, having that really labor intensive process of going back into school, having a lot of work, a lot of stress.”
She acknowledged that the time teachers have to spend with individual students remotely will diminish with the return to the classroom.
We don’t see non-medical masks as being required on an ongoing basis in that setting.B.C. chief medical health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry
“It needs to be balanced out. And that may mean that some students see a reduction in their remote learning,” she said.
Teachers are being encouraged not to come in if sick, and Mooring said the union is working to support teachers who may still need to work from home to be able to do so.
One possible solution schools are looking at is to have teachers who are staying home take over more of the remote learning, so in-class teachers can focus on that. But it’s difficult to predict, because there’s no way accurately to know how families will choose to send their kids back to school on Monday.
“What we’re really hoping is that students that really need to connect with their teachers, would really benefit from connecting with their teachers, will be able to do that,” she said.
Both Fleming and Mooring acknowledged there will be a rocky few days as students and staff settle into the new routine. But hopefully, they say, these weeks will be worthwhile to help plan for September, and also for individual students’ educations.
Fleming said his ministry is aware of some concerns from teachers around workload or going back too soon, but he says the optional return to school should hopefully be an emotional boost for both students and teachers.
“We’ve also had a lot of teachers who missed their kids tremendously and they want to work with them,” he said.
“And I think a lot of teachers so understand that, doing what we’re doing and all the work we’ve been collectively working together will put us in a much stronger position come September.”
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