Students and parents will know the precise details of how B.C.’s return to full-time, in-class instruction will look in School District 73 by late August.
“We’ll keep parents apprised every step of the way,” SD73 superintendent Alison Sidow said.
Education Minister Rob Fleming announced Wednesday enhanced safety measures and additional resources to prevent the spread of COVID-19 will allow the province to move to this phase two of its restart for the 2020-2021 school year beginning Sept. 8.
On the advice of the provincial health officer, students will be organized into learning groups to reduce the number of people they come in contact with, cutting the risk of transmitting the novel coronavirus, Fleming said.
The groups for elementary and middle-school students are to be no greater than 60 people and secondary school groups will be allowed up to 120, as older children can more easily maintain social distancing. Those numbers won’t be per class, but segregated by grades.
Sidow said the provincial government’s framework allows the flexibility to implement different learning models, so long as they are consistent with the health guidelines.
One of the challenges for SD73 schools is density, so how SD73 approaches plans in Clearwater, Logan Lake and Chase may be very different from plans in larger, overcrowded schools in Kamloops, Sidow told KTW.
“In some cases it may be that we also need to implement a hybrid model where there is some online learning and some face-to-face instruction, but our goal is to minimize that,” Sidow said.
The classroom is an essential part of a child's social, academic and mental development, and that's why the province is working to ensure children can spend the school year with their teachers and classmates, Fleming said.
What’s clear ahead of the fall is that 100 per cent of both staff and students are required to return for the full school week, divided by cohort and with the same safety protocols that were in place in SD73 in June — health screenings, directional markers, physical distancing, minimal physical contact, hand hygiene, frequent cleaning and disinfection, and staying home when ill.
While masks aren’t required, they will be available to everyone and possibly recommended in certain scenarios, Sidow said.
SD73’s planning team will begin meeting next week to put together the remaining details of the fall plans, which will require the expertise of school principals, guidance counsellors and teachers.
The work will pose logistical challenges, and the biggest task will likely be organizing the timetables for large secondary schools.
“How do you organize lunchtimes? How do you organize recess? What do start times look like? Those will all be questions we have to wrestle with,” Sidow said, noting plans will involve consultation with SD73’s unions, parents and Indigenous communities.
She said the district may have to consider grouping secondary students according to their academic interests, but scheduling should be more straightforward at the elementary level — such as separating breaks like recess for a kindergarten and Grade 1 cohort at a different time than other cohorts within a school.
Families are expected to hear from their school district or independent school throughout the summer with updated health and safety guidelines, learning groups, schedules, enrolment and registration information
The final details will be submitted to the ministry and posted online on Aug. 26.
The provincial government is putting up $45.6 million to ensure safety measures, including increased cleaning of high-contact surfaces, an increased number of hand-hygiene stations and the availability of masks. The dollars can also be used to purchase adaptive technology and software to support students.
Sidow said it’s not clear how much of that funding SD73 will be receiving, but the general rule is by population.
“If we’re 12 per cent of the provincial population we may get 12 per cent of those dollars but I know it’s also based on need,” Sidow said.
It’s a possibility the additional funds could be spent on more teachers, Sidow said, noting that managing cohorts at the secondary level may require more teachers.
The funds will, however, fund the cost of SD73 adding 17 new custodians SD73 due to COVID-19.
The district is also installing hands-free faucets the district is installing at all schools due to the pandemic.
When it comes to families that may not feel comfortable returning their children to school in the fall, Sidow said she respects those decisions.
“We’ll work with families if they have concerns. They need to reach out to their school principal and they need to talk those through because there are always adaptations and modifications that we can make,” Sidow said.
She said there are alternatives such as home school and distributed learning families can take, but she hopes people will feel comfortable sending their kids to school once they see the protocols that are in place.
“I know we would not be asked to bring kids back to school if Dr. Bonnie Henry did not believe that it is safe,” Sidow said.
Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said students being in class is about getting important social and emotional supports as well as education.
"We know that schools can safely reopen if community transmission is low. Even though we've had an uptick, we know we can flatten the curve in B.C.," Henry said.
— with files from Canadian Press