About 60 per cent of eligible students in the Sea to Sky School District (SD48) returned to classes on Monday, June 1, the first day the province's schools were re-opened on a part-time, voluntary basis.
That equals about 21 per cent of the entire school population. "All schools reported the first two days back at school for students as successful," said Paul Lorette, assistant superintendent with SD48 in an email. "Staff were happy to see their students, and our students were excited to see their teachers and classmates. Student arrivals to school on both mornings were well organized and efficient."
Across B.C., close to a third of all students opted to return.
As part of the rules laid out by the Ministry of Education, school density is restricted to 50 per cent for Kindergarten to Grade 5 and 20 per cent for Grades 6 to 12.
"We are ready for this and we are reopening because we believe it is safe to do," said Dr. Bonnie Henry, provincial health officer, during her daily briefing on Saturday, May 30.
Locally, 61 per cent of elementary students invited back decided to return on June 1 and 67 per cent on June 2. At the middle and secondary level, 51 per cent of eligible students returned on June 1 while 50 per cent returned on June 2.
"(Our team has) done a terrific job," said Lisa McCullough, superintendent with the district, ahead of the re-opening. "Our schools are ready in terms of having the classrooms designed as a more open, spacious setting. If there were any spaces that had furniture or equipment, we were able to reduce that to keep the mobility enhanced ... We've reduced the number of high-touch surfaces as well."
To comply with density restrictions, students from kindergarten to Grade 5 can return for two days a week. Students have been broken into two groups alphabetically—in an effort to ensure family members are returning on the same days—with A to L returning on Mondays and Thursdays and M to Z on Tuesdays and Fridays. (That could vary from school to school, McCullough added.)
"On Wednesdays, our teachers will get some time to be in touch with those kids who have not been attending (in-school classes)," McCullough said.
Middle and high school students, meanwhile, have the option to return one day a week.
Grades 10, 11, and 12 will come in and be grouped with a career and life education classroom teacher. "During that day they will meet with other teachers and get any help and clarity and support for the other courses they're doing," McCullough said.
Meredith Gardner, chair of the District Parent Advisory Council (DPAC), whose son is in Grade 11, toured Pemberton Secondary School ahead of its reopening and took note of extraordinary new measures.
"They're all great schools in the Sea to Sky," she said. "We're so lucky. I don't think people understand how world-leading our district is. We feel, at Pemberton Secondary School, it's a special school. They're really adaptive in how they approach education and they're so caring. The amount of work the teachers had to go through, I don't know if parents appreciate it."
Speaking from a personal perspective, Gardner said she wondered if it was worth sending her son back for just four days total over the month. But, she added, she understands some parents need respite and certain students have had a hard time focusing at home.
"Classically, as a mom or a parent, you always feel there are no-win decisions," she added. "If I send them, they could get sick. If I keep them at home, they could fall behind. Every decision has two sides to it. Honestly, I've never been happier to see the end of the school year come. Usually, I'm very sad."
The province has said that part of the benefit of having students return to classes for one month ahead of summer break is to serve as a dry run for September when COVID-19 protocols will more than likely still be in place.
"I actually think that is one of the critical, ongoing reasons why I understand the government is taking this step," said McCullough, adding the return to school is part of the BC Restart Plan, not instigated by the district. "A big piece is we want to be as flexible and nimble as we can as a province in terms of learning this new flow throughout this exposure control."
Students can wait before deciding if they're ready to return, she added.
"We really encourage everyone to come in at your own readiness to do so," McCullough said. "We believe we have all the plans in place to keep everyone safe and do great learning together ... A big thank you to the whole community—staff, the communities, and other community partners, as well have given us tremendous support with food security and provisions for families, support for devices and so on."
Gardner, meanwhile, advised parents not to worry about their children falling behind.
"Whatever happens over the next few weeks, everyone is doing the best they can," she said. "The biggest thing anyone can do is manage their own anxiety and be willing to step back and just realize that kids learn at their own pace and things can be learned in the future ... The education system is flexible and individualized."