B.C. students will be back in class on Sept. 10 as part of gradual restart

British Columbia's Education Ministry says children will be returning to classrooms two days later than originally planned as part of a gradual restart to schooling.

Education Minister Rob Fleming told reporters Tuesday that students wouldn't be expected back on the original date of Sept. 8 to help give administrators and teachers more time to prepare for education amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

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On Wednesday, the ministry put out a media release saying staff will meet on Sept. 8, while students will be welcomed in classrooms by Sept. 10.

Fleming said the government and its steering committee are working to finalize how school operations will work. He said he expects operating guidelines for schools to be released next week.

“Having the restart week staged in some kind of manner that would have staff teams together for a couple days before we gradually welcome kids back to make sure that every school — all 1,500 of them in the province — are truly ready to welcome students is a good idea, and that’s the approach that we’ll be taking,” Fleming said.

In the past, students going back to class would return to their previous classrooms before moving to new ones, but he said that isn’t safe now.

“That obviously can’t happen under these pandemic conditions.”

The province said it would add $45.6 million to the B.C. COVID-19 Action Plan to help school districts and independent schools get started on the school year. The funds are for such things as better access to hand hygiene, more cleaning staff and opportunities for remote learning.

Students will be put into cohorts, or learning groups, made up of about 60 people in elementary and middle schools and about 120 in secondary school. People will interact primarily with members of their group while at school.

School administrators are currently looking at, or have started, changing the physical layout of classrooms and common areas to help students ensure social distancing is maintained, Fleming added.

The change in the start date comes after concerns were raised by the B.C. Teachers’ Federation and the B.C. Principals’ and Vice-Principals’ Association last week.

The federation called for more time to work on the return to school plan while the association for school administrators asked the government to consider a flexible classroom start date, depending on the readiness of each school.

Teri Mooring, president of the teachers’ federation, said she’s still looking for more details from the provincial government.

“The plans are still underway but there aren’t enough details and information right now for folks,” she said. “It’s understandable that there’s a high level of concern and stress about what it’ll look like in schools in September.”

Mooring emphasized that the safety of staff and students is the top priority.

Don Peterson, president of the Saanich Teachers’ Association, said that putting the start of the year off is a good step if teachers can get into the schools ahead of students.

“My biggest concern with the [back-to-school] plan is how are teachers going to be properly briefed,” he said.

Greater Victoria Teachers’ Association president Winona Waldron also likes the idea of a later school start in order to be more prepared.

“Clearly, there’s a task ahead for teachers and administrators to figure out how to set up these learning groups and to make sure that health-and-safety protocols are in place and that everybody’s familiar with what needs to be done — basically a walk-through before kids are back at school.”

Saanich School District superintendent Dave Eberwein said Tuesday afternoon that he hadn’t received anything official on the issue from the Ministry of Education.

“We’ll certainly take our direction from the ministry in terms of start-up and what they expect for that,” he said. “So if there is additional time for preparation, that’s always appreciated, and we’ll certainly make the best use of it.”

The announcement of a phased-in approach to returning to classrooms came as Health Minister Adrian Dix and provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said in a joint statement on Tuesday that community transmission of COVID-19 affects schools.

“As we look to fall, what we’ve learned from other jurisdictions is that transmission in a school setting is a reflection of what’s happening in our communities; keeping our community transmission low and slow keeps us all safe.

“And behind the scenes, public health is using contact tracing to mitigate the new growth in cases.”

There were 46 new cases in the province on Tuesday for a total of 4,111.

jwbell@timescolonist.com

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