By Fran Yanor / Legislative Reporter
Organized learning groups and additional resources will enable most Kindergarten-to-grade 12 students to return to full-time, in-class instruction in September, the Education Minister announced on Wednesday as the province’s top health officer asked British Columbians to stay ‘flexible.’
“While educators did a tremendous job to keep kids learning throughout the spring and the early summer,” Minister Rob Fleming said from Victoria. “We do know that there’s no substitute for in-class learning.”
Nearly two thirds of B.C. students will have been out of the classroom setting for 175 days by the time school restarts on September 8, Fleming said. “That’s what’s informing our desire to safely restart schools with 100 per cent in-class instruction in elementary and middle schools.”
Much planning has been done to allow students and teachers to safely return to in-class learning, said Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry. “This has not been an easy task.”
Schools can safely reopen if community transmission is low, Henry said.
“I ask families, employers, to please continue to be flexible,” said Henry. “One thing we have learned from this pandemic is we cannot predict the future.”
The province has earmarked a one-time $45.6 million payment to schools for enhanced sanitization protocols, hand hygiene stations and reusable masks (on request). Each school district will plan for their local needs, school populations, and space availability, said Fleming. Some may choose to change the structure or number of classes offered each semester or term, he said.
“We’ll need to continue to learn how to educate our students and… live with this additional layer of complexity,” said Prince George District school Superintendent Anita Richardson in an interview in mid-July.
Educators have proven that we could go from nothing to something in less than two weeks, Richardson said. “September is never going to be as hard as it was in March or again in June; it’s just going to be some variation of what we’ve already experienced.”
A province-wide survey of parents of students in grade 10, 11 and 12 revealed 74% of them felt positively about the June restart, Fleming said.
“We had so many students who returned, and they were so excited and so confident to return and just so happy to be on-site,” said Richardson. “It was great to know that their families felt confident, to return them to the schools.”
At the same time, she said, there were students and families who felt unprepared to return. “They felt equally as strongly about not returning.”
Educators had to ‘exist in the middle’ providing a service that supported families along full spectrum of personal choice and decision-making, Richardson said. “The reality is that we all need to figure out how to accommodate that and be okay moving forward.”
A key element in the return-to-classrooms is the formation of cohorts or learning groups, said Henry. Learning groups of students and staff will remain together throughout the school year or term, primarily interacting with each other.
“Students and staff within each group will be able to safely spend time together, maintaining distance as much as possible throughout the school year,” said Henry. “While they may not be in the same classroom, learning groups will be able to connect with each other during breaks in common areas, and places like the playground, the gym or the library.”
Elementary cohort groups will include a maximum of 60 students and high school groups will have a maximum of 120 students. In the event someone in the group tests positive for COVID-19, public health officials will be able to trace and contain transmissions quickly, Henry said.
“If we start to see community transmission that puts this at a risk,” said Henry, “we will need to adjust the school schedule as well.”
According to Ministry of Health officials, of the 200,000 K-to- grade 12 students who returned to part-time, in-class instruction in June, none tested positive for COVID-19.
The Ministry of Education is planning for five different learning scenarios, ranging from 100 per cent full-time, in-class instruction, to 100 per cent remote learning.
The strategy is a good one, said Richardson. “It’s not really planning for five stages,” she said, “because one is full implementation and we know how to do that, and we’ve really already lived two levels as well.”
BC Teachers Federation president Teri Mooring is calling for a delay on the school restart saying teachers need more time to understand the cohort process and how to implement it safely.
“We recognize that a substantive announcement like this giving overall direction and a new health and safety protocol will take some time to digest,” Fleming said, expressing confidence that the more familiar teachers become with the proposed health protections, the better they will feel. “We’ll keep working with them,” he said.
“For certain, it is more difficult to provide teaching instruction in multiple formats at multiple times, or at the same time sometimes,” said Richardson. “I don’t want to minimize it. It’s something we’ve never asked them to do before. So it’s going to be tough.”
“Six months ago, if anyone said, ‘By the end of this school year, every teacher would have been teaching students remotely,’ people would have laughed at you,” said Richardson.
“It would have never seemed plausible,” she said. “Yet it was done.”
Was it difficult, and challenging, and tiring, and exhausting, and all of those things? Absolutely,” Richardson said. “But I think it’s something that we can get better at. And if we need to, we will get better at it.”
Fran Yanor / Local Journalism Initiative / The Rocky Mountain Goat / Fran@thegoatnews.ca