Schools reopen part-time June 1, but questions remain

The province says students and schoolchildren will have the option to return to the classroom part-time starting June 1, but Peace River North MLA and education critic Dan Davies says many questions remained unanswered.

Premier John Horgan said Friday the program will be completely voluntary, and the choice to participate will be completely in the hands of individual parents.

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Officials warn, however, that the reopened schools will look different from before COVID-19. Student numbers will be limited in schools (under 50% for kindergarten to Grade 5 and 20% for Grade 6 and above), things like lunch breaks/pick-up/drop-off will be staggered, and parents will be required to self-check for flu-like symptoms every morning.

The guidelines mean that students Grade 5 and under who choose to return will be in class 2-3 days a week, and those from Grade 6-12 will be in school one day per week.

Other measures will include school buses with one student per seat, plexiglass separating drivers, encouraged outdoor time and avoidance of clustered activities. There will also be “rigorous” sanitation and cleaning procedures for schools and - of course - an increased focus on hand-washing.

“Things will be very strict, and it needs to be,” said B.C. education minister Rob Fleming. “We also need to remember a lot of young children returning to school will have experienced stress and anxiety in their lives because of the pandemic, and it’s important kids get this type of support from schools, as well.”

Horgan said the gradual reopening starting in June will pave the way for a full reopening in September, but it is important that parents feel comfortable with sending children to school before that happens.

As such, remote learning programs launched during the COVID lockdown will continue - so students who choose not to come to school will not see any disruptions in their educations.

“It’s our genuine desire to make sure no one feels pressured to do it,” Horgan said, adding that the province has consulted with school boards across the province for months to ensure a uniform launch of the re-start. “I understand parents and children are anxious about going back to classrooms, and we want to assure you that we would not be making this announcement today if we felt there is an undue risk to the health and well-beings of the youngsters going into our schools and the adults.”

MLA Dan Davies, the provincial Opposition critic for education, says the plan doesn't give the certainty that parents and teachers were looking for from the government.

"The government has issued a plan that provides general guidelines but raises more questions than answers,” Davies said.

“How can we ensure that our teachers will be provided with adequate PPE and that classrooms will have appropriate safety measures in place? What will a curriculum with optional in-class learning look like? This government has had two months to plan for this and disappointingly, it looks like too much is being left up in the air.”

School District 60 says parents will receive more information by Friday, May 22, on how the return to class will be rolled out in the North Peace.

“What I am hearing from parents, teachers, and support staff is that they have been left to organize an incredibly complex procedure in a short amount of time with little guidance or consultation,” Davies said.

“With only nine working days until our kids are scheduled to return to classrooms, the safety of our teachers and students must be our top priority. If our teachers are going to juggle in-class and virtual learning while maintaining proper health and safety measures, government needs to work much more closely with our school districts to ensure that they have the appropriate guidelines and resources to carry out safe and effective learning.”

Follows is a backgrounder released by the province:

Health and safety

All boards of education and independent school authorities will be required to implement strict provincial health officer and WorkSafeBC health and safety measures to reduce the risk COVID-19 transmission, including:

* desks spaced apart and avoiding groups or gatherings of students in hallways or other common areas;

* regular cleaning of high-contact surfaces like door knobs, toilet seats, keyboards and desks at least twice a day, and cleaning the school building at least once a day;

* students, educators and staff will be required to clean their hands before entering school property, and there will be more hand-sanitizing and cleaning stations available, with well-stocked supplies;

* staggered drop-offs, lunch and recess breaks, with increased outside time;

* staff and students (or their parents/guardians) must assess themselves daily for symptoms of COVID-19. If any student or staff member has even mild symptoms, arrangements will be made for that person to be returned home;

* one student per seat on school buses, unless children are from the same house, with plexiglass separating the bus driver from students; and

* students or employees should not share food or personal items like phones, pens or pencils. Clear protocols also need to be in place for the safe and healthy handling of all food items.

Gradual approach

The Ministry of Education has developed a five-stage approach to operate schools, depending on risk of transmission. Schools will also have plans in place for each stage, ensuring they are ready to make changes if there is a risk of transmission, a second wave or a community outbreak.

Each school district and independent school must have its return-to-class and safety plans approved by the ministry before moving to the next stage. The plans will be posted on each district's website for families to access. The ministry will support boards of education and independent school authorities in building these plans, and operations during the pandemic will be regularly monitored.

Since returning to class is voluntary and most students will be attending part time, school leaders will contact families to make arrangements for children to return to in-class instruction. If parents have not heard from their schools by May 22, 2020, they are asked to contact their principal. Parents and caregivers are advised to follow the schedule provided for their child to ensure a safe and orderly restart.

Child care

Many child care centres have continued to operate safely throughout the COVID-19 pandemic to support essential service workers in communities across B.C.

Updated health and safety guidelines for child care settings released by the provincial health officer will support child care centres that were closed to reopen safely as they are able, and will reassure parents as they return to work that their children will be cared for in a safe environment.

Information from the BC Centre for Disease Control states the COVID-19 virus has a very low infection rate in children. As well, children are not the primary drivers of COVID-19 spread in child care facilities, schools or in community settings. Like schools, child care centres will need to take additional precautions to maintain the health and safety of their employees and the children they care for.

New provincial health officer's guidelines for safely providing child care include:

* maintaining the physical space requirements set out in the Child Care Licensing Regulation. Child care centres have sufficient space to support physical distancing between staff without reducing the number of children in care at any one time.

* organizing children into smaller groups and/or spreading children out to minimize direct physical contact.

* cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces at least twice a day. General cleaning of the centre should occur at least once a day with common cleaning and disinfectant products.

* Setting up hand-hygiene stations at the entrance, so children can clean their hands when they enter. If a sink with soap and water is not available, provide hand sanitizer but keep out of children's reach and supervise its use. Additional hand-hygiene opportunities should be built into the daily schedule.

* staggering the timings of pickup and drop-off. A daily check at drop-off may be conducted by asking parents and caregivers to confirm their child does not have symptoms of common cold, influenza, COVID-19 or other respiratory disease. There is no role for screening children or staff for specific symptoms, checking temperatures or COVID-19 testing. Such activities are reserved for health-care professionals.

* having children outside often, including for learning activities, snack time and play time.

* ensuring each child has their own individual meal or snack. Reusable utensils must be cleaned and sanitized after each use.

* asking parents and caregivers to only bring personal comfort items (e.g., stuffies) if they are clean and can be laundered at the end of each day.

These guidelines will be complemented by WorkSafeBC guidelines for child care providers, which will be released next week.

— with a report from Chuck Chiang in Vancouver

Email Managing Editor Matt Preprost at editor@ahnfsj.ca.

[Reader's note: article updates with comments from MLA and education critic Dan Davies.]

© Copyright Alaska Highway News

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