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'We need to be more flexible than ever before,' Premier John Horgan, seen here in Surrey, B.C., on Aug. 6, said.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

B.C. Premier John Horgan says adjustments to the plan to reopen the province’s schools may be necessary, including delaying the exact day elementary and high-school students return to their classes.

School is set to fully resume Sept. 8 with most students from kindergarten to Grade 12 returning full-time to classes. But some parents and teachers have been calling for a delay because of concerns about safe education amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

In response, the province has cited a series of planned safety measures, including cleaning and hand-hygiene stations, supplied masks and children separated into learning groups of no more than 60 students in middle school and 120 in secondary schools. The B.C. government said the learning group numbers were determined with advice from Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry and are based, in part, on the ability to contact trace should someone within the cohort test positive for COVID-19.

Educators have been calling for a delay for classes to resume.

During a news conference Thursday, Mr. Horgan described the challenge of resuming classes under current circumstances as an unprecedented challenge for the education community, and said plans could change over time.

“We need to be more flexible than ever before,” the Premier said. “If there is new information as the summer progresses, as we get into the first days or weeks of the school year, we will amend and adapt.”

Teri Mooring, president of the BC Teachers’ Federation, said she expects there will be some flexibility at the start of the school year, especially as circumstances around education in a pandemic have changed.

“Those conversations are happening,” Ms. Mooring said. “We’re in a very unprecedented time. There are some practical realities of going back to school that need to be addressed, and I think everyone understands, certainly that teachers and support staff are going to need that health and safety training before school begins.”

The group representing B.C. principals and vice-principals also called for more time.

“We hope that districts and government will recognize the many complexities of a school startup, the work that has been done to date, the significant changes required, the need to communicate those changes to teachers and staff and the importance of taking the time to get it right,” a statement by the B.C. Principals’ and Vice-Principals’ Association said.

Since the government unveiled the plan last week, parents and teachers have expressed anxieties over the cohorts, dubbed learning groups. Principals in many school districts were called back to work this week to discuss how they could implement the groups at their schools, and a petition calling for the return to school to be optional, citing “unsafe” conditions, had surpassed 23,000 signatures by Wednesday.

On Thursday, Dr. Henry emphatically said it’s time to reopen the province’s schools because keeping them closed can have serious, detrimental effects on some children. Being in class, she said, is about social interaction, emotional health and physical activity. Many children lack resources to work virtually.

“For many children in this province, being at school is where they get health care. It’s a safe place for them. It’s a place where they can get psychological support, where they may get a meal," she said.

She said no children under 19 have died in Canada from COVID-19, which does not frequently affect children.

Dr. Henry added that schools have never been a “zero-risk environment” in the past in terms of infectious diseases, citing measles, influenza and respiratory viruses.

The BC Liberal opposition has said the NDP government is downloading responsibility onto school districts, placing them in a situation where they must rush to firm up plans and creating more uncertainty for parents, students and teachers.

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