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‘Most students’ to return to K-12 classrooms in September

Students to be divided into ‘learning groups’ of 60-120 individuals
B.C. Education Minister Rob Fleming and B.C. School Trustees Association president Stephanie Higginson

B.C. Education Minister Rob Fleming says “most students” will return to the classroom in September.

“We know schools can safely reopen if community transmission is low,” B.C. Provincial Health Office Bonnie Henry said at a Wednesday (July 29) news conference with Fleming.

She said students will be divided into “learning groups” of student and staff that primarily only interact with each other throughout the school year.

For elementary students, those groups will be made up of about 60 people, although Henry emphasized they will not all be in the same classroom.

Secondary schools will see learning groups of up to 120 people.

Henry added that despite the large size of the groups, not everyone will have contact with each other each day.

“When September comes, I ask families, employers to please continue to be flexible,” she said, acknowledging that authorities expect COVID-19 cases will occur but the goal is to minimize the risk of transmission.

Henry said older students will be able to better recognized if they have symptoms of COVID-19 and practice hygiene while in large groups.

The B.C. government is earmarking $45.6 million in additional funding to enhance cleaning regimes and hire more cleaning staff.

Fleming said masks will not be mandatory but some of the funding will go towards providing reusable masks for instances in which physical distancing is not possible.

B.C. Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) president Teri Mooring said excellent work has been done with restart planning by the province’s steering committee and a number of working groups.

“But this announcement misses the mark on several critical components and should go back to those working groups,” she said in a statement.

“Bringing everyone back all at once, even with some version of a cohort model, on the first day after the Labour Day long weekend, is too much too soon given the many unanswered questions in today’s announcement.”

The BCTF has two representatives on the Ministry of Education’s steering committee and 25 teachers on the working groups.

The union said it wants more collaboration at the local level between school districts and local unions, health and safety measures tested and in place before staff and students return to schools, time in September for teach to prep for the new measures and smaller classes.

The BCTF is also calling for more clarity around learning groups and how teachers’ health will be maintained through this model.

B.C. K-12 students returned to classrooms in June on a part-time, voluntarily basis.

Kindergartners to Grade 5 students were permitted to attend school half-time, while Grade 6-12 students could return for the equivalent of one day a week.

The first week of June brought in 157,000 students — about 30% of the province's K-12 population.

By the end of the school year, Fleming said that number grew to about 200,000 students.

“Data has shown that children and youth are at a much lower risk of becoming infected with COVID-19, and if they become infected, they generally have milder symptoms,” Ingrid Tyler, medical health officer for the Fraser Health Authority, stated in a May 27 letter to parents and staff.

“Children primarily get sick from other household members, and not from school settings. There is also no conclusive evidence that children who are asymptomatic pose a risk to other children or to adults.”

A July summary of Surrey School District’s safety plans for Phase 3 sees schools abiding by guidelines provided by WorkSafeBC and the Ministry of Education.

The plans include physical-distancing measures that see workstations separated by 2 metres or else a partition, as well as visibly posted occupancy limits in common spaces.

Washrooms, classrooms, water fountains and high-touch surfaces such as doorknobs and keyboards are to be cleaned twice a day.

Coffee makers and shared utensils have also been removed to make cleaning easier.

Parents and visitors are also not to be permitted within buildings except when prior approval is granted.

The district’s return to work policy requires any employees or students showing symptoms of COVID-19 to refrain from entering school property.

Meanwhile, Surrey School District also issued COVID-19-related accommodation forms for employees to submit to doctors in the event they feel unable to return to work at a school.

The forms ask doctors to outline what’s preventing a worker from working, as it relates to COVID-19.

Questions include the start date of a condition that prevents a return to the workplace as well as the limitations or restrictions that would prevent a worker from performing regular duties.

More to come …