COVID-19: BCTF raises concerns about plan for restarting B.C. schools in September

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      In Victoria, B.C. Education Minister Rob Fleming explained that they decided to hold a news conference today (July 29) as “there are some who are feeling anxious about what school might look like in September”.

      In May, B.C. schools began holding voluntarily in-person classes, as part of Stage 3, until June.

      "We were the only jurisdiction in Canada that brought students back into the classroom provincewide before the end of the school year and this has given us valuable information that we are using to develop our plans, ensuring health and safety at schools remain paramount,” Fleming said.

      While B.C. is in Phase 3 of the overall provincial restart plan, schools will enter Stage 2 of B.C.’s education restart plan in September. (Schools have advanced from Stage 5 to Stage 3 in the plan so far.)

      Schools will reopen for full-time in-class attendance by students from kindergarten to Grade 12 on September 8.

      (For today's B.C. COVID-19 update, see this article.)

      B.C. provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and Education Minister Rob Fleming
      Province of British Columbia

      New health and safety guidelines

      At the news conference, Dr. Henry presented updates for health and safety guidelines in schools.

      She explained that students will be organized into learning groups (or social bubbles), in which a group of staff and students will remain together throughout the school year or term and will primarily interact only with each other.

      Not every individual within these groups will necessarily interact every day. Dr. Henry said they may not all be in the same classroom but they will be able to connect with each other during breaks, common areas, or other spaces like the library, gym, or playground.

      These groups are designed to reduce virus transmission while ensuring contact tracing can be conducted efficiently and be “far less disruptive”, Dr. Henry explained.

      For elementary and middle schools, each learning group will have up to a maximum of 60 individuals (who may not all be in the same classroom) and will be separated by grades.

      In secondary schools, groups will have up to a maximum of 120 people.

      “Learning groups are smaller in elementary and middle schools because we know it’s more challenging for younger students to maintain that safe physical distance so we want to reduce the number of people and focus on reducing physical contact between students,” Dr. Henry said. “Older students are also much better able to practice hand hygiene and recognize that they’re experiencing symptoms of COVID-19.”

      She added that based upon data, younger children are less likely to be infected or to spread the virus whereas older children often don’t get severe infections but are able to pass the virus on to others.

      Fleming said there are about 16 secondary schools in densely populated areas of the Lower Mainland and the Okaganan (with 1,500 to 2,000 students each) where some students may not be able to remain in their learning group while physically distancing on a full-time basis. Consequently, he said districts are looking at options and may need to offer hybrid approach that may include remote and self-directed learning.

      B.C. Education Minister Rob Fleming with B.C. School Trustees Association president Stephanie Higginson
      Province of British Columbia

      All education boards and independent school authorities will be required to implement health and safety measures according to the B.C. Centre for Disease Control’s updated guidelines.

      The education ministry is also developing operational guidelines to help school districts and independent schools prepare for September. School districts will submit final details for updated health and safety guidelines to the Education Ministry and will be posted online by districts on August 26.

      The provincial government will invest $45.6 million to enhance health and safety measures, including more cleaning of high-touch surfaces, hand-hygiene stations, and mask supplies.

      Fleming said that amount also includes $3 million to support remote learning, and funds for students with disabilities and complex learning needs.

      As in June, Dr. Henry said that all students and staff will be screened every day by going through a list of symptoms upon entering, and minimizing the number of people entering the premises.

      She said there won’t be any sports tournaments, school assemblies, or large group gatherings. In addition, classes such as band or theatre may have to consider other options, such as performing outdoors, or may not be able to be offered if they can’t be conducted safely.

      Dr. Henry said that it is inevitable that there will probably be some cases in schools but their approach is to minimize transmission and being able to quickly prevent spread. Thus far, she said, mostly adults have been among cases in school situations.

      “But we managed that and there was not transmission to students,” she said. “There was not transmission widely in any school setting in B.C. So we’ve had a little practice with that.”

      She said she is more concerned about any cases that develop without any discernible connections.

      Dr. Henry encouraged everyone to wear a mask if possible, particularly in places such as school buses or hallways, and—most of all—remaining at home if sick.

      Any staff or students who have symptoms will be arranged to return home. 

      B.C. School Trustees Association president Stephanie Higginson with Education Minister Rob Fleming
      Province of British Columbia

      Concerns from teachers

      The B.C. Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) president Teri Mooring issued a news release today stating that the plan requires more work and time to prepare.

      While Mooring acknowledged “excellent work” on the plan and praised the new funding, she said that “this announcement misses the mark on several critical components and should go back to those working groups”.

      BCTF had two representatives on the Education Ministry’s steering committee and 25 classroom teachers in the working groups.

      Mooring stated that the BCTF representatives were “surprised to see some of the details in the announcement made today and agree that the system isn’t ready to enact the government’s plan at this point”.

      She said there are “many unanswered questions” and that teachers and support staff need time in September to adjust to all of the changes and ensure all measures are working.

      Mooring is asking for the provincial government to delay the start of this plan while working groups develop solutions to the following issues:

      • local consultations and collaborations between school districts and unions;
      • health and safety measures tested before staff and students return;
      • time in September for teachers to plan, prepare, and take training and health and safety orientations;
      • smaller classes to ensure all of the children, youth, and adults can practice physical distancing;
      • clarification of how the proposed “cohort model” (learning groups) will keep teachers safe while ensuring students are educated.

      In response, Fleming said he understands and values the role and input of BCTF.

      “They are a critical part of our education steering committee,” he said. “About 25 professional teachers sit on the working groups of our restart plan, and I understand and it’s okay that not all of them are quite there yet.”

      He pointed out that there were similar concerns with Stage 3 of the restart plan.

      For teachers who feel anxious about returning to classrooms, Fleming pointed out that overall announcement will take time to understand all the details, which unions and local teachers associations can help with in answering questions.

      “I think the more they familiarize themselves with some of the details around some of the protections that are being put in place and the experience we’ve had in June to guide some of that work, the better they’ll feel,” he said.

      Dr. Henry said that they have looked to and learned from examples in other countries, such as Denmark, Finland, and New Zealand.

      You can follow Craig Takeuchi on Twitter at @cinecraig or on Facebook.