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Desks are seen in a classroom at Pacific Heights Elementary school in Surrey, B.C., on June 12, 2020. The BC Teachers’ Federation praised the updated reopening plan.

DARRYL DYCK/The Globe and Mail

B.C. schools will reopen two days later than planned, with returning students being told, ahead of their formal studies, about the new realities of attending class during the COVID-19 pandemic, the province’s Education Minister says.

On Sept. 8, the previously scheduled day for the full-time start of school, all school staff will be briefed on new guidelines developed by the BC Centre for Disease Control and the provincial health officer. The students will be back on Sept. 10 to hear about the new rules of pandemic conduct.

“This is a year like no other in terms of what September will look like,” Education Minister Rob Fleming told a news conference in Victoria on Wednesday.

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The Education Minister also said he expects there will be some outdoor education, when possible, while the weather remains pleasant in September and October. He did not elaborate.

As back-to-school anxiety mounts, Canadian parents turn to private pods – and critics warn of class divisions

As Mr. Fleming announced the plan, he said his ministry sees in-class instruction as vital to the well-being of children, adding school closings have taken a heavy toll on both children and their families. So the challenge now is to figure out how to educate safely during a pandemic.

“Having said that, there are choices available for parents who have situations where it’s not the right choice, they believe, for their family,” he said.

Those choices may include using online learning or home-schooling.

The BC Teachers’ Federation, which has expressed concerns about the pace of fully reopening the province’s schools, praised the updated plan.

Federation president Teri Mooring said her union had been advocating for health and safety training time. “I was really heartened by the announcement,” Ms. Mooring said.

“With a 100-per-cent return of students, there is a tremendous amount of logistical planning that needs to occur, let alone the procedures and protocols that will need to be put in place and taught to students.”

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Ms. Mooring said she expects the time required to train students will vary across the province, pointing out that the start of school, even before the pandemic, had varied by district.

Of the training, she said, “It’s going to be very different from anything students have experienced before in their school careers. The adults in the building need to make sure they are properly trained, and then we need to make sure students are properly trained as well.”

Premier John Horgan said that different approaches will be required across the province to cope with the challenges of COVID-19.

“What’s needed in Salmon Arm is not the same as what’s needed in Saanich or Salmo in the Kootenays. Every school is different, every district is different, and teachers, administrators, trustees, parents are all going to have to find a way to make it work,” Mr. Horgan told a news conference on Wednesday.

The Premier acknowledged a daunting challenge.

The government is spending $45.6-million on safety measures, including increased cleaning of high-contact surfaces and increased availability of masks, even though masks will not be mandatory across the school system.

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Also, students will be organized into learning groups to reduce the number of people they come in contact with, cutting the risk of transmitting novel coronavirus. In elementary and middle schools, learning groups will be capped at 60. In secondary schools, groups can reach 120.

Specific details about how schools plan to maintain cohorts, how classrooms will be configured, how long students will be in class and whether some instruction will be delivered online are not scheduled to be communicated to parents until Aug. 26, according to the Ministry of Education plan.

In a statement, opposition education critic Dan Davies of the BC Liberals said the governing NDP has kept families in the dark about what education will look like in September. “At the end of the day, people are looking to the minister and to the ministry for leadership and they are being met with confusion and anxiety.”

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