BC premier responds to teachers worried about returning to the classroom

May 21 2020, 12:36 pm

With BC now in the midst of Phase 2 of its reopening plan, and students set to return to school June 1 on a “part-time, optional basis,” BC Premier John Horgan was asked how he responds to teacher concerns that being back in the classroom potentially increases the risk of contracting COVID-19.

“I think this is an appropriate way forward, and I do believe that teachers can feel confident and safe,” said Horgan. “We considered all those issues, and Minister [Rob] Fleming has been working for the past eight weeks, on trying to find the right mix of bringing kids back so that we can have a ‘dry run’ for the start of the new year in September.”

The province, said Horgan, has “done that in a way that is voluntary when it comes to parents and children, but also in a way that will meet the needs of teachers, support staff, administrators, and all of those important people that keep our K-12 system operating.”

Ultimately, Horgan said that he wants to “assure” both teachers and parents “that we would not have opened up schools again in June if we did not believe it was safe to do so.”

And in preparation for the reopening, “we’ve worked with public health officials, and we’ve worked with WorkSafeBC, who is in the business of making sure that workers always go to work safe and come home the way they left.”

Horgan said he knows “these are challenging times filled with anxiety, but we’ve tried to reduce that anxiety as much as possible by putting in a plan that will allow for physical distancing for teachers and kids.”

He stressed again that the return is voluntary, and only for the month of June, “but for these kids that are having challenges with online learning, this is an opportunity to get a little bit of face-to-face instruction, so they can maybe capture some of the elements of whatever section of the curriculum is causing them difficulty.”

The announcement on BC students returning to the classroom was made last week, during a joint press conference with Horgan, Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, and Minister Fleming.

In making the announcement, Fleming noted that the return “won’t be back to the school life was before the pandemic,” noting that there “will be strict health and safety standards in place.”

Fleming said that in an effort to make sure schools are safe for students and staff, the number of students in school each day will be reduced, with most receiving in-class instruction part-time.

School districts will determine scheduling for classes and transportation arrangements. For kindergarten to Grade 5, this means most students will go to school half time (such as alternating days), while grades 6 to 12 will go to school about one day a week.

Children of essential service workers and students needing additional supports will have the option to attend school full time. Families that decide not to send their children to class may continue learning from home.

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, Fleming said. These 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, Fleming said.

If parents have not heard from their schools by May 22, they should contact their principal, he added. Parents and caregivers are advised to follow the schedule provided for their child to ensure a safe and orderly restart.

In addition, all school boards and  independent school authorities will be required to implement strict provincial health officer and WorkSafeBC health and safety measures to reduce the risk coronavirus 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 doorknobs, toilet seats, keyboards and desks at least twice a day, and cleaning the school building at least once a day;
  • 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 the coronavirus. 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.

In addition, 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, according to the minister.