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School start will be delayed, minister says

B.C. Education Minister Rob Fleming says students won't be back in classrooms on the originally planned date of Sept. 8. Fleming says students will be welcomed back to classrooms later in the second week of September after staff review the latest B.
B.C. Education Minister Rob Fleming provides an update on COVID-19 and schools, March 17, 2020. Flickr/Province of British Columbia

B.C. Education Minister Rob Fleming says students won't be back in classrooms on the originally planned date of Sept. 8.

Fleming says students will be welcomed back to classrooms later in the second week of September after staff review the latest B.C. Centre for Disease Control guidelines and school operation policies. It's not clear when children will be allowed to return to schools.

“Previously students would come back into class, usually with their previous year's teachers, and wait a few days for school to be organized for the coming school year,” Fleming said. “We can't do that in a pandemic. That would not be in compliance with the BCCDC guidelines.”

Fleming says the government and its steering committee are working to finalize how school operations will work.

He added that the previous way students have traditionally attended school in the first week — where they return to their previous classrooms before moving to new ones — isn't a safe practice during a pandemic.

Premier John Horgan has previously stated his confidence that children will be safe when they return to their classrooms.

Several groups, including the BC Teachers’ Federation and the BC Principals and Vice-Principals Association (BCPVPA), asked for the start to be delayed.

Darren Danyluk, president of the BCPVPA, said if students and staff all arrive on Sept. 8 they won’t necessarily have been briefed in COVID-19-related safety protocols.

He added it could prove to be “very challenging” if there is no time before Sept. 8 to plan how to restart school during a pandemic.

“If we don’t get together as a team beforehand, how do (teachers) know their tasks, their roles,” Danyluk said.

Fleming said the announcement coming in a few days will outline what Sept. 8 will be like for support staff, administration and teachers to make sure students are “organized into the classes where they will be with their peers in a unit that is designed to limit the student interactions.”

“If that takes some extra time and builds additional confidence and fulfils the guidelines that have been developed by Dr. Bonnie Henry and her team, that's what we're going to do in the province of British Columbia,” he added.

Back to school town hall today

Peace River North MLA Dan Davies will hold a virtual town hall Tuesday afternoon on B.C.'s back to school plan.

Davies, the provincial Opposition education critic, says the town hall will be a place for parents, teachers, and students to share their concerns with the plan as the economy re-emerges from its COVID-19-induced lockdown.

“I guarantee you’ll see a different return to school for every district across the province,” Davies said. “You’re going to have school districts with one plan and other school districts running with another plan. One is going to be better than the other, and teachers talk around the province. We saw that in June."

The province announced last month that “most students” will return to the classroom when schools re-open Sept. 8. Students will be organized into “learning groups” of 60 students in elementary schools and 120 students in secondary schools.

School districts have been given until Aug. 26 to finalize their respective return plans.

Davies said continuity of learning plans released for June ranged from a couple of pages in some districts, to binders in others. He worries about inconsistencies across the province.

“Some have good resources, good leadership. Some are struggling. There are lots of small school districts that don’t have the resources,” Davies said.

The province says it is earmarking $45.6 million to enhance cleaning regimes and hire more cleaning staff. Masks will not be made mandatory, but they will be made available to staff and students.

Still, the province has received scrutiny from the BC Teachers Federation, which wants the start of the school year delayed to address its concerns.

“There’s district-level planning that’s going to need to take place, then teachers are going to need time for their own planning [and] also health and safety training,” said BCTF president Terri Mooring. “All that needs to happen prior to students coming to school.”

“I can’t underline enough how complex this planning is going to be… We just need time."

School District 60 Superintendent Stephen Petrucci says planning continues, and that he’s confident the district will be able to draft a plan in line with the province’s expectations amd guidelines.

Most elementary students are already grouped and learning under a cohort model, he said. The challenge, he said, will be to extend that to the middle and secondary students, particularly when it comes to course selection and core courses for grades 8 through 12.

Plans for busing are being developed, and the district expects a slice of of new funding to hire more janitors and custodians, and buy more sanitization stations.

“The key piece here is all of the safety guidelines we saw in the spring will continue,” Petrucci said.

“We are confident that we can plan and open up our schools.”

The back to school town hall starts at 3 p.m. and will take place via Zoom. To register, click here.

— with a report from Maria Rantanen in Richmond, The Canadian Press

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