Parents and students on Canada’s West Coast can expect school life to better resemble the prepandemic era when classes resume this fall, complete with assemblies, competitive sports and field trips, but masks may still be mandatory inside and local public-health teams will still respond if clusters of COVID-19 break out on site.
B.C.’s Provincial Health Officer, Bonnie Henry, said at a press conference Thursday that enough of the population is vaccinated to allow this new approach when nearly 1,600 public schools reopen in September, but this transition will depend on the wider transmission of the virus in various communities. A decision on whether children in Grade 4 and older will have to continue wearing masks indoors will be made in the summer, she added.
“Things like field trips, we need to get back to those,” Dr. Henry said Thursday. “We know that some children learn best through things like music, or physical education, so we need to have those opportunities for all children to learn in the ways that works for them, and those are important parts of the school year.
“So, yes, we see those coming back.”
As well, British Columbia is scrapping its cohort system that restricted students in elementary and middle school to only coming in contact with groups of up to 60 other classmates, and high-school students in groups of up to 120. The tactic was put in place to minimize the risk of transmitting the virus and facilitate contact tracing. Still, Dr. Henry said, students must stay home if they are feeling sick and get tested if they have any COVID-19 symptoms.
She added that there will be a “heightened concern” if the virus starts to spread, but public-health teams would manage it as any other communicable disease such as influenza. Dr. Henry said some school activities may have to be temporarily suspended, the timing of classes could also be changed to prevent crowding in hallways, and students must keep constantly washing their hands.
Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside said at the same news conference that there will be $14.4-million in funding next school year for cleaning and disinfecting, hand hygiene for students and staff as well as improved ventilation. She said while some systems have been upgraded, some improvements still need to be made. Ms. Whiteside said the province will continue working with a committee that includes educators, parents and public-health experts to finalize plans over the summer.
More than half of people from the age of 12 to 17 in B.C. have received a first dose of vaccine, the Education Ministry said.
Also on Thursday, Ontario’s Education Minister stated that his province will release its plans for the next school year in July.
Quebec announced its plans for the fall earlier this month, stating that students will no longer have to wear masks or be confined to bubbles consisting of their classroom as long as more people continue to get vaccinated and overall case counts stay low.
Teri Mooring, president of the BC Teachers’ Federation, greeted the provincial plan’s with cautious optimism, noting she was pleased at the extra funding to continue buying protective gear and keep portable hand-washing stations in operation. She said the flexibility around certain rules is needed given the spread of the Delta or other variants and how many 12-to-17-year-olds will continue to get immunized.
“It’s wise to leave some of those decisions until August,” Ms. Mooring said.
Andrea Sinclair, president of the BC Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils, spoke at the news conference after Dr. Henry and said school districts will be prepared and flexible come September to meet “individual student needs, including acknowledging and addressing impacts from the pandemic on learning, mental health, and well-being.”
Experts across the country have warned of learning loss over the past year, and some students have fallen behind entire grade levels. Early interventions are required, they say, to ensure students’ future academic success and prevent the need for years of heavy investments by school districts to give these students extra instruction.
Alberta recently announced $45-million in new supports this fall for an estimated 50,000 of these students.
On Thursday, Ms. Whiteside in B.C. announced $5-million of the new funding will go toward mental health services, which she said she expects to include a combination of counselling supports and other student-led programs to help their peers grapple with these trying times.
“School districts have done some very remarkable things with the funding that was already made available during this school year,” she said. “Whether it was in hiring additional child and youth workers. Or developing programs, in some cases peer programs where students could get involved in developing programs in conjunction with supporting their peers.”
With a report from The Canadian Press
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