By Fran Yanor, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Mar. 17, 2020 – As part of fast-expanding provincial and nation-wide efforts to curb the spread of the new coronavirus, in-class learning in all kindergarten-to-grade 12 schools will be suspended immediately and indefinitely, the B.C. government announced today.
“We have to… protect our students and staff, and keep our schools safe,” said Education Minister Rob Fleming today from Victoria.
The announcement came on the same day as B.C. Medical Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry declared a state of public emergency in the province as part of ongoing efforts to stop the transmission of COVID-19.
As of this afternoon, 186 British Columbians have tested positive for the virus, four people have died, seven are in intensive care, three in acute care, and the remainder are self-isolating at home under the supervision of health care professionals. Most people reside in the Vancouver and coastal areas but the infection has spread to all health authorities across the province. Four people in Northern Health have so far tested positive.
In response to the contagiousness of the virus, Dr. Henry has banned public gatherings over 50 people, ordered the closure of casinos and bars, and advised all incoming travellers to B.C. they must self-isolate for 14 days on arrival, among other measures.
The government made the decision to temporarily halt in-school classes under the direction of the medical health officer, and has the support of all the school districts, teachers and stakeholders in the education system, said Fleming.
“The decision to suspend in classroom learning was not made lightly,” said Fleming, who explained, since the suspension will go on for some time, the education sector will have to rethink how learning is delivered. When teachers return from the originally scheduled spring break on Mar. 30, they will strategize how best to maintain education delivery for all grade levels.
“What we have the school sector working on right now is a plan around continuous learning… and that’ll look different for primary, intermediate and secondary school students,” said Fleming. “We’ve urged schools and school districts to begin planning now to ensure a continuity of learning while in-class instruction is suspended in BC schools indefinitely.”
Despite the suspension, all students will receive a final mark, he said, and all students currently on a trajectory to graduate, will graduate.
“All students who are on track to move to the next grade in the fall will do so,” he said, adding that all eligible grade 12 students will also graduate. “The ministry is also working very closely with post-secondary institutions to ensure that graduating students will transition successfully and smoothly next year.”
The province currently has 57 online learning providers and the entire B.C. curriculum is also available online. Potential scenarios going forward may include converting in-class learning to online, or perhaps delivering classes through a combination of learning environments, including some delivered electronically, directed by individual teachers.
“We’ll determine that as we go forward,” said Fleming. “We’ve got the sector, putting their minds to it right now. And we’ll have more to say about that later.”
Meanwhile, school districts and independent schools will be expected to maintain some level of service for the children of teachers, medical health professionals, first responders, pharmacists and others who are providing essential services to combat COVID-19. This may take the form of providing limited learning instruction to the children of first responders and others in an adjusted school setting that maintains social distancing and other COVID-19 prevention measures, said Fleming.
For the moment, daycares are not included in the closure order.
“We’re taking direction from Dr. Henry on these matters and she’s made it clear to us that health care providers and other essential personnel within the economy, within the infrastructure that we need to have in place to provide services to people, need access to childcare,” said Premier John Horgan.
Valemount Children’s Activity Society have already made the decision to close.
“A parent should take comfort in that,” said Horgan, “but it is an evolving situation and should the public health officials give us different direction we’ll be taking different actions.”
Meaning, families should be ready, he said, in case new information arises and the medical officer issues new public safety orders regarding daycares.
“Today we’re in a fast moving situation,” said Fleming, who urged parents to talk to their children about how the changes are intended to keep them safe and protect the most vulnerable people in the community. While the virus poses limited risk for healthy people and have affected very few children, it can be devastating or fatal for the elderly and people already suffering significant immune and other health issues.
“The actions we’re taking today are temporary, we will return to regular school life down the road,” said Fleming. “In the meantime, look out for one another, and remember, we have to act together if we’re to prevent the spread of COVID-19 further.”
Dr. Henry has repeatedly advised the public to stop the spread of the coronavirus, people should wash their hands, cough into a sleeve, maintain two arms-lengths between each other and stay home if they are sick.
If you are experiencing symptoms, consult the B.C. government’s online self-assessment tool.
If, after completing the self-assessment, you still have questions, call the province’s COVID-19 hotline at 1-888-268-4319 or go to the BC Centre for Disease Control website.