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Most students in British Columbia will return to full-time, in-class learning this September, but questions remain about how some high schools will adapt class schedules to accommodate new COVID-19 guidelines.

B.C. Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry said Wednesday that when schools open on Sept. 8, students will be grouped into cohorts called “learning groups” in efforts to mitigate potential spread of the novel coronavirus and ensure quicker contact tracing.

These learning groups can include up to 60 people in elementary and middle school, and up to 120 in secondary school. The students won’t necessarily be in the same class, but will be able to interact during breaks and in common areas such as libraries and playgrounds.

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Most elementary schools will be able to accommodate these cohorts with minimal modifications. But high schools in which students move from class to class may have to overhaul programming, with options such as reduced course loads, moving to a quarterly system and remote online or self-directed learning.

Stephanie Higginson, president of the BC School Trustees Association, said the change will require a complete rethinking of existing programming.

“If we keep trying to stick a square peg into a round hole, it’s not going to fit,” Ms. Higginson said Wednesday. “In order for folks to be able to conceptualize this, we really have to erase everything and start again, and think about different ways of being in the school.”

Dr. Henry said the learning group caps are a balance of allowing students to socialize, while also minimizing risks of transmission.

“We need to think of it more like a work place, where we take precautions but we have our work bubble as well, and we make sure that we’re not having contact as much as possible [while] also reducing the numbers of people we’re encountering,” she said.

The government will distribute $45.6-million to school districts and independent schools to increase safety measures, such as cleaning high-contact surfaces, adding more hand-hygiene stations and having reusable masks available upon request.

Masks will not be mandatory for either staff or students, but may be recommended in some scenarios, such as when students take public transportation.

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“We know some people have concerns,” B.C. Education Minister Rob Fleming said. “That’s why we’re making sure reusable masks are available upon request with this funding.”

Extracurricular activities, such as sports, are permitted if physical distancing can be maintained between members of different learning groups, and physical contact reduced between those in the same learning group, according to the B.C. plan.

School districts have until Aug. 26 to submit to the ministry and post online their plans.

Teri Mooring, president of the BC Teachers’ Federation, called the plan “a work in progress” and said teachers need more clarity around the proposed learning group model, as well as time and training to adjust to the new learning conditions and workplace structures.

“As you can imagine, teachers have lots and lots of questions about how that’s going to work,” Ms. Mooring said. “Today’s [announcement] introduced a lot more questions than provided answers about that.”

Ms. Mooring said the teachers’ union has two representatives on the Ministry of Education’s steering committee and 25 teachers on its working groups, and that the representatives were surprised to see some of the details announced Wednesday.

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The initial plan for this stage was a full return to school for kindergarten to Grade 7, and a partial return for grades 8 through 12, she cited as an example.

“We were very happy to hear the minister commit to the steering committee and the working groups continuing to meet,” Ms. Mooring said. “A lot more planning is needed in order for this to all work in September.”

Liberal education critic Dan Davies said the plan lacks detail and downloads responsibility to school districts.

“Families aren’t going to be finding out until a week before classes start what school will look like in their districts,” Mr. Davies said. “We feel that simply isn’t good enough and certainly doesn’t provide the clarity and guidance that families are looking for.”

We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.

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