Teachers union, parents express anxiety about B.C. school reopening plan

BC education minister Rob Fleming
B.C.'s education minister Rob Fleming announces the return to in-class schooling in September, in a July 29, 2020 press conference. Photo: Screenshot/BC Government
David P. Ball - CFRO - VancouverBC | 30-07-2020

VANCOUVER — B.C.'s youth will be returning to full-time schooling on Sept. 8, the province announced on Wednesday, but not everyone is comfortable with the plan.

The teachers’’ union in British Columbia says it's deeply uncomfortable with the province's planned returning to full-time classroom instruction on Sept. 8 — a view shared by some parents as well — despite assurances from the provincial health officer and education minister on Wednesday.

B.C.'s education minister, Rob Fleming, announced on Wednesday that schools will be returning with in-class, full-time instruction for students — without mandatory mask-wearing as some had hoped.

The first day of school across the province will be Sept. 8, he said, but with a new plan developed with health authorities to split children into "cohorts" of 60-120 students to minimize the transmission of COVID-19.

Those concerned have said it is "too soon" to know how bad a predicted second wave of the coronavirus in the fall would be, and what level of risk children, educators and families may face.

The plan, said the B.C. Teachers Federation in a series of tweets, "is not ready and needs more work if it's going to be successful, keeping everyone safe.

"Bringing everyone back at once, even with some version of a cohort model, on the first day after Labour Day long weekend is too much, too soon," said BCTF's president Teri Mooring.

Fleming announced that plan and other enhanced safety measures — backed by $45 million in additional funding for districts — to prevent the spread of the coronavirus among students and staff, saying the B.C. Education Restart Plan would go ahead even with the predicted second wave of the virus.

"Limiting the number of people each student or staff member comes into contact with will reduce the risk of transmission, and will ensure better contract tracing by health authorities," Fleming said on Wednesday in a press conference. "Masks are not mandatory at this time,” he noted, but said doing so is a personal choice except in certain situations “where physical distancing can't be maintained.”

Fleming acknowledged not everyone is happy with the idea of full-scale schooling without mandatory masks.

"We know some people have concerns,” he said, “and that's why we're ensuring that reusable masks are available upon request."

The plan has earned the blessing of B.C.'s provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, who said on Wednesday the plan is the result of "a lot of thought and consideration," but that being back in school is essential not only for children's wellbeing, but also parents being able to return to work.

"One thing we have learned from this pandemic is we cannot predict the future," she said. "We are planning for a number of scenarios, and if we start to see community transmission that puts this at a risk, we will need to adjust the school schedule as well.

"We'll need to continue to learn and adapt as we go. We do know that cases may occur, and we in public health … will be there and support the school community … We know we can do that safely and efficiently."

Fleming said restarting full-time instruction is essential because so many young people "need and benefit from the school setting," and said the province has learned lessons from the return of some roughly 200,000 pupils who returned to part-time classrooms in June.

"But many did not, and some of those students will have been out of a classroom setting for 175 days by the time Sept. 8 rolls around," he said. "That's what's informing our desire to safely restart schools with 100 per cent in-class instruction … Kids thrive when they're with their teachers and with their peers.

"It's vital for their social and economic development, and their mental health and wellness."

Listen to this news segment below from The Pulse on CFRO, originally broadcast on July 30, 2020, or stream the full episode at Vancouver Co-op Radio's website.

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