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A cleaner wipes down students lockers at Eric Hamber Secondary school in Vancouver, March 23, 2020.

JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

The union representing B.C. teachers wants smaller classes and stricter mask policies as part of increased safety protocols when schools resume next month.

The B.C. Teachers Federation said in a statement on Wednesday that although the union has been working with the provincial government, reopening plans announced late last month do not go far enough, and some of teachers’ main concerns have yet to be addressed.

“B.C. teachers fully support the ongoing efforts of all the education partner groups to get students back to learning as soon as possible,” said federation president Teri Mooring. “However, the sharp rise in active COVID-19 cases has many people worried that the government has not done enough to ensure teachers, students and their families are safe.”

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Earlier this week, the B.C. government announced students in middle and high schools would need to wear masks in common areas like hallways and school buses where physical distancing isn’t possible. But the union wants masks mandated for students as young as 10, including in the classroom, labs and libraries.

Ms. Mooring said it’s impossible to practice physical distancing in classrooms with up to 30 or more students, and the situation will be particularly worrisome in large, fast-growing districts that have hundreds of portables.

“The K-12 restart plan, even with the learning group concept, has made no change to classroom density. You can’t have a group of 30 17-year-olds in a typical classroom for hours and maintain physical distancing for them or their teacher.”

Ms. Mooring said in an interview that teachers aren’t looking for a specific class size, but want a plan to ensure physical distancing is possible.

“What we’re looking for in terms of classrooms is for class density to be reduced so that physical distancing can happen, and that will depend on the size of the classroom,” she said, adding that a school and classroom density target is needed.

Education Minister Rob Fleming said the ministry was aware of the BCTF’s concerns, and many are being addressed in a working group of teachers, ministry staff and administrators. He did not say which issues.

He said the government's restart plan has adhered to health guidelines established by the BC Centre for Disease Control.

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"We will continue to work with teachers, parents, support staff and education partners on the steering committee on the safe restart plan."

According to the Ministry of Education, the average class size for grades 1 to 3 is 19.5 students and it is capped at 20. For grades 4 to 7, it is 23.3 students, and for grades 8 to 12, 22.4 students. The caps vary for grades 4 to 12.

The federation is also calling for the province to offer remote learning, especially for children who are medically compromised or have a family member who is.

“We anticipate the number of families that might want to access remote learning for medical reasons is going to increase quite a bit, so we see the need for that to be organized provincially, or at least that option be something that the province agrees should happen in every school district,” Ms. Mooring said. “And school districts need to dedicate teachers specifically to remote learning.”

Mr. Fleming said the ministry is working with education partners to find ways to support choice while keeping students connected to their school.

Edmond Luk, a parent of a Grade 3 student in Burnaby, said the BCTF’s recommendations are in line with what many parents in B.C. want.

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A petition calling for the return to school to be optional, initiated by Mr. Luk, had surpassed 36,000 signatures by Wednesday.

He said the government should offer both virtual and in-person learning, and install physical barriers in schools.

“For families that want to enroll their children virtually, they should have that choice too. And they should have the choice to virtually learn but without having to withdraw their child from the current school,” Mr. Luk said.

He noted such an option could help reduce the class sizes.

He said he lives with his parents, who are in their mid- to late 60s, so he also needs to consider their safety.

The province has given B.C. school districts until Aug. 26 to communicate plans to parents. But several districts, including North Vancouver, Prince George and Central Okanagan, said this week that they are still working on details and guidelines and may have them ready next week or later.

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Ms. Mooring said the union is hoping decisions will be made before Aug. 26.

Mr. Fleming said an orientation week Sept. 8 to 11 will help students, teachers and staff adjust to their new routines, find out about their learning groups and practise safety protocols.

In Toronto, the chairman of Canada’s largest school board said late on Tuesday that a new proposed plan to reduce class sizes will address crowding at elementary schools in Toronto neighbourhoods at the highest risk of COVID-19.

Toronto District School Board chairman Alexander Brown says the board would lease additional space and hire more teachers.

Mr. Brown said the board will vote on the new plan on Thursday and may still need approval from the province. A board plan to cut all elementary school class sizes was rejected by the Ontario government last week.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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