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Voluntary part-time return to schools in B.C. on June 1, says premier

VICTORIA — Students in British Columbia can go back to school June 1 on a part-time, optional basis with no pressure on parents to send their kids to class, says Premier John Horgan. B.C.

VICTORIA — Students in British Columbia can go back to school June 1 on a part-time, optional basis with no pressure on parents to send their kids to class, says Premier John Horgan.

B.C. has managed to flatten the COVID-19 curve and the province is about to start lifting restrictions on some businesses and activities next week, which will be followed by a gradual increase in students returning to classrooms next month.

Parents will be given the choice of allowing their children to return to class on a part-time basis, Horgan told a news conference on Friday. The government's goal remains the return of full-time classes in September, if it is safe.

"It's our genuine desire to make sure no one feels pressured to do this," he said. "Our objective here, and our top priority, is to make sure our schools are safe. This transition is voluntary."

Under the part-time plan, the number of students allowed in schools will be reduced to ensure safety.

For kindergarten to Grade 5, most students will go to school half time, likely on alternating days, while grades 6 to 12 will go to school about one day a week. Online, remote learning will continue.

"This step will pave the way for a cleaner and smoother reintroduction of full-time classes in September," said Horgan.

About 5,000 students, including children of essential service workers and those needing extra support, are already in classrooms.

The government announced five more deaths from COVID-19 on Friday, bringing the province's death toll to 140. There were 15 new cases, for a total of 2,407.

Education Minister Rob Fleming said the pandemic has meant parents, students and teachers have had to adjust to a different learning atmosphere, which has been necessary for safety, but there have been challenges.

"While precautions like physical distancing and remote learning have been necessary to keep everyone safe, it hasn't been easy," he said. "A lot of children are really missing classroom time with their teachers and classmates."

Strict health and safety standards will be in place for next month's return, Fleming said.

Teachers, students and staff must wash their hands before entering schools and hand sanitizing stations will be in numerous locations throughout the buildings, he said. Students, teachers, staff and parents must conduct daily health self-assessments to check for symptoms of COVID-19 or other illness. If they are sick, they must stay home, said Fleming.

To ensure physical distancing, desks will be placed apart in classrooms and gatherings of students in hallways and other areas must be avoided, he said. High contact surfaces, including door knobs, toilet seats, keyboards and desks, will be cleaned regularly during the day and entire school buildings will be cleaned at least once a day.

Recess and lunch breaks will be staggered as will student drops offs by parents.

"Schools will look significantly different than before the pandemic," said Fleming. "Students, educators and staff should feel confident knowing we're taking every precaution to put their health and safety first."

Teri Mooring, president of the B.C. Teachers Federation, said the union consulted with the government and health officials on the school plan.

"We worked very hard to ensure that very high standards of health and safety were in place," Mooring said in an interview. "We know that that was the most important thing to teachers and families."

The federation is pleased with the plan but has concerns about the availability of personal protective equipment and increased workload, she said.

Mooring said teachers and students will have the option of wearing personal protective equipment in classrooms including masks, but the union wants a large enough supply at schools for all those who may request it.

Dan Davies, the B.C. Liberal party's education critic, said the plan provides little information about how schools will function and on the supply of safety equipment.

"Today's announcement did not provide the certainty that parents and teachers were hoping as once again, the government has issued a plan that provides general guidelines but raises more questions than answers," said Davies in a statement.

Fleming, Horgan and provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry acknowledged the graduating class of 2020, whose achievements are being recognized under unprecedented circumstances this year.

"You are truly unique, graduating in the middle of a global pandemic is something that has not been seen in over 100 years," Henry said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 15, 2020.


Dirk Meissner, The Canadian Press