B.C. premier says return to class a 'challenge,' but students will be safe

SURREY, B.C. — Sending British Columbia's students back to class in September will be "an unprecedented challenge" during a pandemic, but Premier John Horgan said he's confident children will be safe.

Some parents and teachers have expressed concern about the resumption of school next month, but Horgan said Thursday the government would not endanger students.

"I want parents to know that we would not be putting their children at risk if we thought there was an overwhelming risk."

Horgan said this is the biggest challenge the province's education system has had since the last global pandemic 100 years ago.

He said he understands it's a very stressful time for parents, educators and children.

"But I'm as confident as I can be, based on the information I have today, that every effort to get this right is being made."

Everyone is prepared to be flexible to ensure students, staff and school employees are protected from the risk of COVID-19, he said.

"If there is new information as the summer progresses (or) as we get into the first days or weeks of the school year, we will amend and adapt."

He said every community and every classroom is different and decisions on how specific schools will operate will be left to those jurisdictions.

Most students from Kindergarten to Grade 12 are expected to return to full-time classes Sept. 8, with increased safety measures, including cleaning and hand-hygiene stations and masks.

Children will be separated into learning groups of no more than 60 in elementary and middle school and 120 in secondary schools.

The BC Teachers' Federation has said the restart plan needs more time and a lot more work if it's going to be successful.

When the full reopening was announced last week, the federation said bringing all students back on the first day after the Labour Day long weekend was too soon.

The BC Principals' and Vice-Principals' Association has also asked the government to consider a flexible classroom start date, depending on the readiness of each school.

"The adjustments to timetables and the possible move to alternate calendar models will require meticulous attention to ensure that the experience of students, educators and families is consistent," the association said in a statement Tuesday.

It said the learning groups would also need more explanation to help students, staff, families and school communities understand the health and safety implications.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said during her COVID-19 update Thursday that it's necessary to get children back to school.

"It's essential for their emotional and social growth and well-being, as well as for their education needs."

The costs of keeping our schools closed is too high, she said.

"We know the downside impact on some children, particularly those children who are falling behind is never made up is if schools are closed for an extended period."

Horgan said he knows there's anxiety about the future, but schools needs to start so officials can make changes to keep people safe and reduce anxiety over time.

"It's August, we're a month away and what happens over the next 30 days is going to be critical. What happens 30 days after we open is critical as well, but we have to take that first step to get this journey started."

The province has done very well slowing the spread of COVID-19 by following scientific advice and Horgan said he's confident about the time frame put in place by the education minister.

The premier made the comments in Surrey, where he announced a new regional cancer centre for the city to be included in the construction of a new Surrey hospital.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 6, 2020.

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