By Fran Yanor / Legislative Reporter

Students will have new health and safety protocols to embrace when they return to school in September, but Robson Valley high school students will face less change than their peers elsewhere in the district, said Prince George School District Superintendent Anita Richardson.

Most other high schools in SD57 will shift from two semesters a year to four, with only two classes per semester, but McBride and Valemount high schools will keep the two-semester structure.

“The two high schools will have a regular semester timetable,” said Richardson following the release of the SD57 guidelines last week. “It’ll look like a regular school year.”

Implementing a combination of measures at each level will reduce the risk of COVID-19, according to COVID-19 Public Health Guidance for K-12 School Settings. Graphic courtesy of BCCDC

Learning Groups (Cohorts)
Under the Ministry of Education back to school plan, students and teachers will belong to learning groups and primarily interact with each other for the semester or year. Learning groups limit interactions to the same people every day, allow students greater freedom with those in their group, and give public health fewer close contacts to trace should someone in the group test positive for COVID-19.

Elementary school learning groups will be limited to a maximum of 60 people. Students in the same class will belong to the same cohort, and may spend lunch and recess with another class within the same learning group. High school learning groups will have a maximum of 120 people. At McBride and Valemount secondary schools where the total enrolment is less than 120, the whole school will make up a single cohort.

Within a learning group, social distancing won’t be required, although physical contact will be minimized. Hand-washing hygiene, high-touch surface disinfection, and contact tracing will be maintained.

“That’s our best line of defense in the really young children,” said Dr. Rakel Kling, medical health officer with Northern Health during a Prince George District Parent Advisory Council webinar. “But we’re definitely advising that the older kids, especially the teenage level”¦ to still maintain that six feet of distance.”

Little kids are less able to distance than adults and teenagers, and they’re less likely to wear masks appropriately. Under the new school protocols, elementary school students won’t be expected to do either within their learning groups.

There’s nothing wrong with wearing masks, but they are usually the last line of defense in terms of preventing the spread of COVID, said Dr. Rakel Kling, medical health officer with Northern Health.

Masks will be required for middle school and high school students in situations where it’s not possible to maintain physical distance, such as on buses, and in hallways. Elementary students will not be required to wear a mask.

“It’s ultimately a choice if students want to wear masks more than those minimum requirements,” said Kling.

Hand hygiene
Hand washing or hand sanitizing stations will be available at school entrances, in hallways and classrooms. Additional stations will be added throughout schools as needed.

Sharing school supplies
No more group party food treats or swapping snacks with each other at lunch hour. Students can share school supplies that can be sanitized, and textbooks should be fine for sharing, said Kling. “There’s absolutely no evidence that COVID is spread via paper books.”

Families should go through a daily health assessment to check for flu or COVID-19 symptoms with their children prior to attending school each day. If a student is symptomatic, they should isolate and not go to school.

If symptoms are unclear, parents can contact the school nurse or call the public health COVID information line for advice.

If a student begins showing symptoms of COVID at school, the protocol will be to remove her or him from the school or classroom setting, and call home to have the student picked up.

“Ultimately, we recommend, whether the child has COVID or not, they should be at home when they’re sick,” said Kling.

All students and educators who develop symptoms should consider getting tested. Knowing if someone has tested positive helps prevent the virus spread, particularly in schools. That said, testing is not mandatory; it’s a choice.

For those who test positive and are well enough to recuperate at home, quarantine usually lasts 10 days from the onset of symptoms. Most can return to work or school even if minor symptoms persist past the 10 days.

Public health officials will monitor each case and decide when an individual can come out of isolation.

Home schooling or remote learning
Parents with concerns about returning their children to in-class learning should contact their school administrators directly.

Keeping perspective
“We need to be prepared to expect this in our schools,” said Kling.

Every fall and winter, public health officials implement protocols to reduce the spread of respiratory illnesses and communicable diseases – measles, pertussis, gastrointestinal diseases, chicken pox, influenza, and now, COVID.

“It’s at the point in BC and Canada now where we can’t keep every person COVID-free,” said Kling. “I think it’s important that we normalize that.”

Fran Yanor / Local Journalism Initiative / Rocky Mountain Goat / [email protected]