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A custodian cleans a classroom at Eric Hamber Secondary school in Vancouver, March 23, 2020. British Columbia has outlined a plan to reopen schools in June for optional, part-time classes, starting in June 2020.JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

British Columbia has outlined a plan to reopen schools in June for optional, part-time classes, more than two months after the province suspended in-class teaching for most students from Kindergarten to Grade 12.

Class times and breaks will be staggered, and students from Kindergarten to Grade 5 will return for no more than half of their usual instruction time. Students in Grades 6 to 12 will likely have classes offered one day a week, so that there are no more than 20 per cent of students in the school at any one time.

“This step will pave the way for a cleaner and smoother reintroduction of full-time classes in September,” Premier John Horgan said Friday.

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The details will be worked out by each of the province’s 60 school districts as well as independent schools in the next week. Every school will have to produce a plan, based on guidelines from the Provincial Health Officer, to ensure that students are spread out to maintain physical distancing, and to provide extra cleaning and additional hand-washing stations.

A typical school will have students enter individually through a single set of doors, where they’ll be expected to wash their hands. They will be required to stay two metres apart from others, both inside and out on the school grounds. Hallways and other common spaces will feature directional signs to avoid congestion. Students will keep personal items in a bag or backpack, with no access to lockers. Playground equipment will likely remain off limits, and students will be encouraged to avoid hugs or handshakes. Classes may be held outdoors when possible.

Students, teachers and support staff will be required to stay home if they have any symptoms of a cold, influenza, COVID-19 or another infectious respiratory disease.

“Whether you think it’s allergies, a mild cold, the sniffles – that’s the time you need to stay home,” Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry said.

Dr. Henry said the trial run in June is important to build confidence that schools can fully reopen next September.

For this year’s graduating class, she said, it will offer an opportunity to say goodbye. “You are truly unique, graduating in the middle of a global pandemic is something that has not been seen for over 100 years,” she said. “So I encourage you to take advantage of that and to know that it’s done in a way that’s safe.”

Education Minister Rob Fleming said the reopening plan is a cautious one. "It’s going to be very strict and it needs to be,” he said. “Schools will look significantly different than before the pandemic.”

In-class instruction was suspended in mid-March for all except the children of essential service workers with no other alternatives. Most students have been trying to keep up with lessons through remote learning, but Mr. Fleming said Friday that experience is not comparable to in-class instruction.

“School is a place where kids learn how to connect with others. It’s a place where they grow as people. And not having those places to learn and grow has been especially hard for children who need extra support, or for kids who find that school is their safe haven in their lives.”

He acknowledged that many students are struggling with the remote learning system that has been offered since March. “There are a lot of students who will significantly benefit by having a partial return to school, that are struggling with the online learning environment.”

The union representing B.C.'s public school teachers is calling for personal protective equipment to be supplied to staff who wish to wear a mask, and for assurances that teachers who are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, will be protected.

As well, the BC Teachers’ Federation, in a series of social media posts, said it expects the school districts to ensure that teacher workload will not increase as its members try to provide both in-class and online instruction. The union did not return an interview request by deadline.

Mr. Fleming said students should, for the most part, be returning to their familiar teachers but that is not guaranteed. Also, he stressed that the June classes are not mandatory. “Families that want to can continue having their families learn at home. And for those families who choose to return to school on a part-time basis on June 1st, remote learning continues for them when they are not in classroom.”

The changes come as B.C. is taking some steps to reopen the economy, allowing restaurants and some other services to resume as early as May 19. Because that will mean more parents looking for child care, the province also issued new guidelines on Friday to allow more daycare options for preschoolers.

The province has provided subsidies to 2,600 daycare operators to ensure essential services workers could continue working through the pandemic. Katrina Chen, Minister of State for Child Care, said the new rules should allow additional spaces to open up. Daycare operators will have to provide frequent disinfecting of high-touch surfaces, and a plan to spread out children to minimize physical contact.

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