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An empty teacher's desk is seen at the front of a empty classroom at Magee Secondary school in Vancouver in this file photo from Sept. 5, 2014.

Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press

Parents and educators in British Columbia are expressing concern over a plan to reopen schools that will see students grouped into cohorts of up to 120 people, with some describing it as a logistical nightmare that seems to contradict public-health advice to date.

But the B.C. government says the cohort numbers were determined with advice from Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry and are based, in part, on the ability to contact trace should someone within the cohort test positive for COVID-19.

Since the government unveiled the plan last week, parents and teachers have taken to social media to discuss their anxieties over the cohorts, dubbed learning groups. Principals in many school districts were called back to work this week to discuss how they could implement the groups at their schools, and a petition calling for the return to school to be optional, citing “unsafe” conditions, had surpassed 23,000 signatures by Wednesday.

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Jen Heighton, an elementary school teacher in Burnaby, said she is particularly troubled by the size of the learning groups given emerging research that children may be bigger drivers in the spread of COVID-19 than previously thought.

“The learning groups are problematic, in my opinion, because they are so large,” Ms. Heighton said. “It goes against all of the recommendations that [health officials] have said before.”

The B.C. government announced last week that most students would resume full-time in-class learning in September under a cohort system to minimize the risk of transmitting the virus and facilitate contact tracing. Students in elementary and middle school would be placed into learning groups of up to 60 people, and high-school students in groups of up to 120.

Students in the same learning group won’t necessarily be in the same class but can interact during breaks and in common areas such as libraries and playgrounds. Physical distancing is not required within the groups but minimized physical contact is, according to the province.

A steering committee comprising teachers, parents, public-health representatives and others helped inform the government’s planning process, but the last-minute introduction of learning groups surprised many. As well, the original plan for this phase entailed a full return for those in kindergarten to Grade 7 and a partial return for Grades 8 through 12.

Burnaby parent Edmond Luk said he is so worried about sending his two young children back to school that he took the uncharacteristic step of starting a petition calling for the return to be optional.

“Sixty people means 60 families – and that’s under the assumption you have one child,” Mr. Luk said of the elementary and middle school cohort size. “If you have two children of different grades, then you’re doubling that amount, and suddenly you’re expanding your bubble into thousands of people overnight.

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“These last four months, we’ve been told to be really careful with our bubbles. At one point, we were told not even to contact people outside of our households.”

Asked about the rationale for the group sizes, Scott McKenzie, a senior public-affairs officer with B.C.‘s Ministry of Education, provided a statement saying they were based on advice from Dr. Henry as well as on the size of classes in B.C. schools.

“Public health determined that these numbers are manageable from a contact-tracing perspective in the scenario where someone in the school community is confirmed positive for COVID-19,” an e-mailed response from the ministry read.

As well, the group limits give schools “the flexibility they need to provide in-class learning to students in a way that’s very close to how education was delivered before this pandemic, while also limiting the number of contacts staff and students have at school.”

Dr. Henry has also spoken of the adverse effects of children staying at home, including mental-health and anxiety issues.

Public-health guidance suggests different desk and table formations to allow for space between students, but many have noted that classrooms are often already at capacity.

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“Pretty much every building, every room, is in use,” said Ms. Heighton, the elementary school teacher. “There is no extra space to be able to expand classes, unless we were to get creative and use community spaces. Then you would have to worry about transportation. It’s like a puzzle that’s almost impossible to solve.”

Patti Bacchus, education columnist and former chair of the Vancouver School Board, pointed out that parents who do not feel comfortable putting their children back in school don’t have many other options.

“You can do distance learning, and online learning, but that means you’re not enrolled in your regular school,” she said. “It kind of is an all-or-nothing model right now, and I don’t think that’s going to work for everybody.”

Darren Danyluk, president of the B.C. Principals’ and Vice-Principals’ Association (BCPVPA), said the rationale for the learning groups makes sense but that they will be a challenge to implement.

“If you’re in a smaller school, it’s a bit easier to accomplish,” Mr. Danyluk said. “But if you’re in a school of 2,000 secondary students, then we’re talking about some significant challenges. How do we stagger break times? How do we stagger movement through the hallways? Do we even move through the hallways? Are teachers now going to be moving from room to room, and students not?”

Principals in many districts were called back to work this week to begin discussing the logistics. School districts are expected to submit their plans to the ministry and post them online by Aug. 26, though it will primarily be principals and vice-principals, working with their teams, responsible for sorting out school-level details, Mr. Danyluk said.

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The BCPVPA is asking the government for a flexible start date for returning to schools based on level of readiness.

“We will certainly do everything in our power to bring this vision to light, but we also want to be practical and not rush into something unprepared,” Mr. Danyluk said.

We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.

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