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A cleaner helps clean a classroom at Eric Hamber Secondary school in Vancouver, B.C. Monday, March 23, 2020. Most schools have surveyed parents to determine how many students to expect in the classroom next week.

JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

Fewer than half of British Columbia students are expected to return to their schools next week, as parents cautiously assess the reopening of the education system.

The province suspended in-class teaching for most students in March. Classroom instruction will be offered on a part-time, voluntary basis for the final month of the school year. The reopening is serving as a trial run to what is expected to be a full return to classrooms in September.

Most schools have surveyed parents to determine how many students to expect in the classroom next week, and Stephanie Higginson, president of the BC School Trustees Association, said districts are expecting substantial reductions in attendance – at least in the first few days.

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Attendance is expected to be between 30 and 50 per cent, she said. Some parents may be concerned about the risk of COVID-19, she said, but others may not want to disrupt whatever routines they have put together for their families since the province invoked emergency measures owing to the pandemic.

Given the short notice of the reopening, the response has been positive, she said. “It’s quite encouraging, considering the amount of time people have had to work with, and I think as more messaging is out about what those plans are going to look like, more people will feel confident in making the decision."

In addition to lower expected attendance in June, 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 that amount to a total of one day per week, so that there are no more than 20 per cent of students in the school at any one time to enable adequate physical distancing.

Online and remote learning will still be offered to supplement those lessons, and for those who opt not to return to school in June.

The Provincial Health Officer has provided guidelines for pandemic safety, but each of the province’s 60 school districts has to devise its own strategy and every school has to adapt the plans to ensure that students are spread out to maintain physical distancing, and to provide extra cleaning and additional handwashing stations.

Students will be expected to follow strict protocols to avoid groups or gatherings in hallways or other common areas, they will be asked not to share food or personal items such as phones or pencils, and they will be required to clean their hands before entering school property. 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.

Teri Mooring, president of the BC Teachers’ Federation, said attendance may be even lower than the surveys suggest. Some parents may have indicated that their child is returning in order to ensure that a space is available.

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“Right now, a lot of teachers are back in their classrooms this week to prepare, but what it looks like next week will depend on how many students end up returning. We’ve learned that the surveys are not very reliable.”

She said teachers are skeptical that districts will provide the increased sanitation that has been promised.

“The biggest issue with health and safety plans is the way they are adhered to in districts,” Ms. Mooring said. “We have some good, solid plans in place, but there will need to be oversight around compliance. Teachers are going to need to see the proof in the pudding before they are comfortable."

She said there continue to be conflicting messages about whether teachers can, or should, wear masks. Not only is the advice from public-health experts changing, but the province has balked at providing teachers with masks.

“Social distancing cannot be guaranteed in schools, we have pushed to ensure that it is an option. The choice [to wear a mask] needs to be respected for teachers and students.”

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