Schools to re­open in ‘bub­ble’ for­mat

Times Colonist - - Front Page - JEFF BELL

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.

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