As the start of the new school creeps closer, and BC students prepare for a return to in-classroom learning in September, Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said on Monday she knows parents and families are worried about exactly what that might look like.
She also attempted to alleviate some anxieties around the plan, and provide more clarity as to what British Columbians can expect once classes are back in session.
“Schools will look different,” she said. “We have to put aside what classes were like in March or even in June and we learn from what we know about this virus. It is important to remember that the layers of protection we use at work, at the grocery store and in restaurants will also be used in our schools.”
These layers of protection, she said, include “limiting time with others, using one-way pathways, cleaning more, washing our hands regularly and always staying home if we are feeling unwell are important measures that will be used in our schools,” said Henry.
Currently, schools and school districts “taking the plan that has been developed and applying it to their schools, ensuring the layers of protection are there from the first day to the last day of the school year,” she added.
The mask question
Henry also again addressed the question of whether she’d consider mandating that students wear masks once they return to the classroom.
“I think masking is important in those situations where adults or older children are getting together in situations where they can’t maintain at least a meter distance,” she said. “There is a role for masks, but they are just one of the layers of protection that we have, and we’re building in many layers.”
However, “to think of a young child sitting all day in a classroom with a mask on is probably not realistic,” she said. “There’s lots of things we can do to make those environments safe without requiring someone to sit with a mask on for long periods of time.”
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Asked for some clarity on when it might be appropriate for masks to be worn in a school setting, as well as some of the other measures that might be taken, Henry said: “there’s lots of things that we know about how this virus is transmitted in those settings.”
This, she furthered, “includes the way people are sitting, the way they’re facing, the distance between them, and the types of activities being done.
And while “every setting is different,” Henry said there are opportunities for schools to look at other options, “such as removing or minimizing the amount of stuff such as furniture in the classroom,” and/or paying attention to what sore of ventilation the room is equipped with.
Henry also spoke further about the around the learning “cohorts” in the government’s back-to-school plan.
“I think there’s been a lot of confusion about the term ‘cohort,’ and people believing this means that students will have close contact with 60 people every day – which is not the concept at all,” she said. “It’s maximizing the number of people over the semester or the whole year that children will have contact with,” she said.
For most schools, “it will be much smaller than this number,” said Henry. “But this guideline gives the ability to stagger groups of classes together, so that you’re able to stagger things like arrival times, recess and lunches, for example.”
As part of the fall return, the province said plans to implement cohorts (learning groups) to reduce the number of close, in-person interactions. These groups of students and staff will remain together throughout the school year and who primarily interact with each other.
Cohorts will be no more than 60 people in elementary and middle school and no more than 120 people in secondary school.
The province noted it won’t be necessary for students in a learning group to all be in the same class, “but they will be able to interact and connect with each other as a consistent group during breaks, in common areas like the gym, library, or at the playground.”
In addition, staff and students (or their parents/guardians) must also assess themselves daily for symptoms of COVID-19, the province said. If any student or staff member has even mild symptoms, arrangements will be made for that person to return home.