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B.C. Medical Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry provides an update on the coronavirus in the province during a news conference in Vancouver on March 18, 2020.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

Across British Columbia, schools reopened this week after spring break with empty halls, no classroom instruction and just a handful of the 550,000 enrolled students in attendance.

In the school district of North Vancouver, with 16,000 enrolled students, only six pupils gathered in École Boundary Elementary, with unfamiliar classmates, teachers and routines. They are the children of essential service workers who are on the front lines of the COVID-19 health crisis – their parents are nurses, doctors and paramedics who would not be at work without this option for child care.

“It’s disconcerting for everybody right now,” district superintendent Mark Pearmain said. “Our little ones who are not back at their regular school with their regular teachers and their regular friends in the classroom, so we want to make sure that we support them the best that we can.”

The school district had 90 applications for this care from parents who have been deemed by the province to be essential service workers – and the number is expected to increase next week.

The list of essential services in British Columbia during the pandemic is long, including health workers, law enforcement and those who maintain critical infrastructure. But it also includes all government workers and those working in service industries such as banks and dry cleaners, and in retail stores ranging from grocery to garden supply – even cannabis shops.

Not everyone will find child care.

On Tuesday, the province set up a registry for those who still require daycare for young children. As in the schools, priority will be given to the most critical of essential workers.

“Childcare providers and schools providing care and/or in-class instruction for children are to prioritize placements for those children whose parents are employed as front-line workers in direct-to-public health and health services, social services, law enforcement, first responders, and emergency response,” the provincial directive states.

School districts and independent school authorities have been asked to ensure students whose parents work in one of these fields have access to care before, during and after regular school hours. In the North Vancouver school district, the school is open now from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Most schools asked parents to fill in surveys last week to determine who qualifies for such care.

Mr. Pearmain said his school district is starting only with the top tier of those in need as it works out new routines. The number of students that can be accommodated will increase over time, he said. For those pupils in school, there will be no more than six students in each classroom, and access to shared spaces such as gymnasiums will have to be carefully co-ordinated.

Each school district in the province is navigating its own path, with classroom instruction suspended indefinitely, and teachers busy developing long-distance instruction.

On Tuesday, Provincial Medical Officer Bonnie Henry warned that any gatherings of people are best avoided. “Right now all gatherings are off the table," she told reporters. "Anytime we get together with more than our household members or our families, we’re putting ourselves at risk.”

Mr. Pearmain said no one on his staff has been assigned to this work, but 40 teachers and members of the support staff have volunteered. Most teachers are preparing lesson plans for non-classroom instruction for what is likely to be the rest of the school year.

“One of the things I’m most proud about with our school district is that my staff is constantly willing to pitch in and just do what needs to be done," he said.

Dr. Henry has urged people to stay home when possible and has advised that all parents who can should care for their children at home. But she has also called for schools and some daycare operations to remain open for parents who work in critical roles during the pandemic.

Schools are aiming to identify which school-age children – from Kindergarten to Grade 6 – need a safe place where they can be cared for while their parents work on the front lines.

Wherever possible, school districts and independent school authorities are also to offer priority care to parents and caregivers of students with unique needs and low-income families with no other child-care options.

Meanwhile, the province is providing temporary emergency funding to support daycare providers and ensure access to child care is maintained for essential service workers. Parents can apply to an essential service child-care registry, and if they qualify they will be to connected with available licensed child-care spaces.