Schools to reopen in ‘bubble’ format
Most students will be able to return to the classroom this September as the province emerges further from the COVID-19 pandemic, but school will not be quite the same.
Minister of Education Rob Fleming and provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry made the announcement Wednesday. A statement from B.C. Teachers’ Federation president Teri Mooring said that the government’s plan needs more time and work to be successful.
Henry said a “key aspect” of getting back to school will be the creation of student cohorts, or learning groups, in every school across the province. They will be larger than classroom units — about 60 people in elementary and middle school, and up to 120 in secondary school.
Henry compared the groups to the “bubbles” people adhere to in deciding who they feel safe being with. She said the groups will be smaller for younger students because they tend to have more of a challenge maintaining a safe distance.
Older students can be in larger groups because they tend to be better with hand hygiene and recognizing COVID symptoms, she said.
“Looking to September, school is going to look and feel different,” Henry said.
Annilee Armstrong, who has children at North Saanich Middle School and Parkland Secondary School, said she is pleased with the plan.
“My kids needed to go back,” she said. “I’m happy, I feel like they’re going to take care of us, take care of our kids.
“I feel like our health and safety is first priority.”
Armstrong said it is an unusual situation at schools and she will be looking at things “month-tomonth.”
“So for September, I expect that they’ll be back full-time and then they will reassess,” she said. “But as soon as cold-and-flu season hits I feel like all bets are going to be off.”
Angela Carmichael has children at George Jay Elementary School and Central Middle School, and said both are “raring to go” back to school. She said the provincial government is dealing with a tough set of circumstances in a return to school.
“I think, given that this is literally unprecedented, we have no way of knowing if this is going to work or not but we have to try,” she said.
“As a parent, what I’m going to do is go ahead and trust in the system that they’ve put in place.
“I’m not worried about sending my children back to school, per se.”
A national survey, conducted before Wednesday’s announcement, found that just 40 per cent of B.C. parents would send their children back to the classroom for at least a few days a week, below the national average of 59 per cent.
Henry said the idea behind the learning groups “is to create groups of students and staff who will remain together throughout the school year and who primarily only interact with each other.”
Students and staff within each group will be able to safely spend time together while maintaining distance whenever possible, and there will be less mingling within the school environment, Henry said.
“While they may be not in the same classroom, learning groups will be able to connect with each other during breaks, in common areas, and places like the playground, the gym or the library.”
The groups also reduce the potential for transmission in the event of a case of COVID at a school.
There will be additional measures around cleaning, movement and social interactions.
In-person class time was cancelled in B.C. on March 17 due to COVID concerns. Some students returned on a part-time, optional basis in June.
Cancellation was considered to be at Stage 5, and the new academic year is Stage 2, Fleming said.
“Stage 2 will see most students returning to the classroom fulltime with new and enhanced health-and-safety guidelines cocreated with the provincial health officer, the B.C. Centre for Disease Control and public-health experts.
“Kids thrive when they’re with their teachers and their peers. It’s vital for their social and academic development, and their mental health and wellness.”
Some large secondary schools could have to look at options to maintain in-class learning, Fleming said, including an approach that includes online and selfdirected learning. Others may look at how to best use the semester system or other classroom arrangement.
Fleming said $45.6 million is being added to the B.C. COVID-19 Action Plan to support school districts and independent schools at the start of the school year. That will include funds for better access to hand hygiene, more cleaning staff, reusable face masks for staff or students choosing to wear one, and remotelearning opportunities.
Henry said a return to school has been thought about since classes were cancelled. “The very first thing we discussed was to get children back into those important learning environments as soon as we could, safely.”
She said schools can safely reopen if community transmission of COVID is low.
“And even though we’ve had an uptick in the last few weeks, we know that we have flattened the curve here in B.C., and we know we have what it takes to continue to keep our transmission rate low.”
Henry said a school setting has many benefits.
“For students, being in class is about learning, about seeing friends, about getting those important emotional and social supports, as well as an important education,” she said. “Being back to school is also crucial for the many parents and families to be able to work and to be able to cope with dealing with this pandemic as a community.”
Henry said she would like to see families and employers continue to be flexible when school returns in September “because we cannot predict the future.”
“We are planning for a number of scenarios, and if we start to see community transmission that puts this at risk, we will need to adjust the school schedule, as well.”
Mooring, the teachers’ union president, called for “more authentic consultation and collaboration” involving teachers and said bringing everyone back to school at the same time “is too much too soon.”
The union said more clarity around the concept of cohorts is needed, and classes should be smaller to make social distancing easier.
It also called for having healthand-safety measures in place and tested before staff and students return.
Education Minister Rob Fleming and provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry outline the government’s plan for the upcoming school year in the legislature press theatre on Wednesday.