Back to school in September will mean almost back to normal, as the pace of COVID-19 vaccinations continues to accelerate, Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside said Thursday.
“British Columbians are showing just how much they care about each other by getting vaccinated at amazing rates,” she said.
With all eligible British Columbians to be offered both vaccination doses by September, students are expected to be back in the classroom for full-time, in-person instruction in the fall, she said, noting half of students aged 12 to 17 have already received their first dose.
Students will no longer be grouped in “cohorts” to limit social interaction, Whiteside said, and current restrictions on gatherings such as assemblies, extra-curricular activities and sports will be relaxed in time for the new school year, pending further public-health guidance.
Whiteside said the province will continue working over the summer with a committee that includes educators, parents and public health experts to finalize school reopening plans.
Parent Angela Carmichael, who has a son in middle school and another in elementary school in the Greater Victoria School District, said students are excited to get back to “even a little bit of normalcy.”
“You’ve got to think that this health authority has gotten us through probably the worst time in modern history with the pandemic,” said Carmichael, whose older son is 12 and has been vaccinated. “I think that it’s completely safe. I have complete faith that the science of the vaccine works.
“And I think that it’ll be great for the teachers to take kind of a load off their shoulders.”
Whiteside said the province is committing $43.6 million for ongoing COVID-19 health and-safety measures, support for Indigenous students affected by the pandemic, mental-health services and other programs. “Early research is showing that those students most impacted are those who already faced structural barriers, including students living in poverty, Indigenous students, English-language learners and those who need more support in school.”
Whiteside said $18 million of the funding will address learning impacts on students.
Rules on mask-wearing in schools will come out during the summer “and will align with broader provincial direction,” she said.
“What will remain the same is we will expect students and staff to continue to complete daily health checks, stay home when they feel sick and practise diligent hand hygiene.”
Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said school closures early in the pandemic “affected families and communities across the board. “Being in class is more than just education, as important as that is,” she said. “We know it’s about social, physical, emotional and mental health, as well.”
Henry said there will be a “heightened concern” if the virus starts to spread in communities, but public health teams would manage it like any other communicable disease, including influenza. She said some school activities may have to be temporarily suspended and timing of classes could be changed to prevent crowding in hallways, for example.
In September, parents can again go into schools, where transmission was rare, she said.
Henry congratulated students who are graduating this year, saying: “You’ve done an amazing job through a very challenging year.”
“That is something you will take with you for the rest of your life and know that you have that strength and resilience when things get tough in your future,” she said.
B.C. Teachers’ Federation president Teri Mooring said she is happy to see the government put funding into the next school year but more will be needed. Mooring said some students should be offered remote learning as they transition back to the classroom. “A lot of families may not be comfortable sending their children back.”
She said she’s happy that some decisions will be made closer to the start of school. “What we know about this pandemic is it’s unpredictable.”
And while cleaning has been important during the pandemic, school cleanliness is something the BCTF has been concerned about for many years, Mooring said.
“What happened over the last 20 years or so is in an effort to balance budgets, districts really had to cut back on cleaning,” she said.
Mooring said there is an ongoing need to “pandemic-proof” schools because some cleaning protocols and other measures weren’t in place when COVID-19 hit.
- With files from the Canadian Press