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B.C. Minister of Education Rob Fleming speaks to Jacob Cunliffe, 13, left, and his brother Joshua as they wash their hands following an update on part-time return to classes during a tour of Monterey Middle School in Victoria, B.C., on Tuesday June 2, 2020.

CHAD HIPOLITO/The Canadian Press

British Columbia should put its back-to-school plans on hold and come up with a new road map that takes into account millions of dollars of federal funds Ottawa made available on Wednesday, says the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation.

“I know the federal government’s funding announcement was unexpected, but we should see it as a huge opportunity to work together and get things right,” BCTF president Teri Mooring said Wednesday in a statement.

The federal government on Wednesday announced up to $2-billion for provinces and territories through the Safe Return to Class Fund, saying the money would help provinces pay for things such as improved air ventilation, cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment. B.C. is in line for $242.36-million.

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“The train has not left the station, school has not started. There is more than enough time to use the new $242-million in federal funding to improve the safety of our schools and classrooms,” Ms. Mooring said.

Also on Wednesday, British Columbia’s 60 public-school districts posted back-to-school plans that outline revamped class schedules, staggered start times and other measures the provincial government says will protect students and staff from COVID-19 when school starts on Sept. 8.

The province on July 29 announced it planned to to reopen schools in September, saying students would be organized into learning groups that would reduce the number of personal contacts and the potential risk of COVID-19 transmission.

But the details of how those groups would operate and other measures – such as staggering class start times, changing course schedules or making physical changes to classrooms – were left up to individual school districts, which were required to submit reopening plans to the province for approval.

The BCTF, which this month launched a campaign calling for back-to-school measures including smaller class sizes, stronger mask regulations and options for online learning, says the province should have held off its restart announcement so that schools could adjust plans taking the federal funds into account.

In a news conference Wednesday, B.C. Education Minister Rob Fleming welcomed the new federal funds but said district plans have been approved, with an emphasis on getting students back into classrooms.

Mr. Fleming said the federal funds would allow districts to spend more on protective measures including personal protective equipment, plexiglass barriers and cleaning systems.

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Asked how school staff and students could safely distance in some conditions, including portable classrooms with few windows, Mr. Fleming said school restart plans have been developed based on guidelines from the B.C. Centre for Disease Control and that there are layers of protection in the school setting. Those include physical distancing, hand-washing, the use of masks, restricting the number of people in certain spaces and controlling the flow of people in and out of buildings.

“Schools are different than, say, a shopping mall,” Mr. Fleming said. “These are secure sites, buildings distributed in different configurations in many rooms.”

Mr. Fleming said he expects districts to be flexible in their approach, including potential online learning opportunities. The BCTF and many parents have been pressing for options for remote learning for students who may need it.

On Wednesday, Mr. Fleming said such options would be available.

“We have extended the authority to all school boards to flexibly offer remote learning programs to students within their districts,” Mr. Fleming said.

Burnaby, B.C., resident Edmond Luk, who launched a petition to make the return to school optional based on health and safety concerns, wants to see remote learning available across the province. On Wednesday, Mr. Luk said he was not reassured by Mr. Fleming’s comments, saying it appears some districts may offer remote learning but others may not.

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“It’s still very vague,” Mr. Luk said, adding that he’d prefer a provincewide directive. “Everybody’s life is on the line right now, it’s not just the kids. It’s the teachers’ lives, it’s everybody.”

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