September will bring a “near normal” return to class for B.C. students.
That was the message from Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside and provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry at a media briefing held June 17.
Whiteside announced a total of $43.6 million in pandemic recovery funding for schools, including $25.6 million in one-time funding earmarked to help with health and safety, Indigenous education and mental health services. Another $18 million is designed to help school districts address the impacts of the pandemic on student learning. (The $18 million includes $5.9 million announced earlier this year, plus an an additional $12.1 million that is being provided from the remaining 2020/21 school year operating grant.)
But what exactly does “near normal” mean? And how will that money be spent?
Here’s a closer look at what we know so far – and what we don’t – about the return to school in September.
How will schools be structured?
Students can expect a full-time return to in-class instruction. Students will no longer be divided into cohorts, or learning groups, as they are this year.
What health and safety protocols will be in place?
Three key elements of this year’s health and safety guidelines will remain in place: daily health checks for students and staff, the requirement to stay home when sick, and frequent handwashing.
Henry said other measures that will be considered include a focus on “crowding points,” such as hallways. That may mean looking at timing classes, timing when people come and go from school, and allowing parents and other visitors into schools in a “measured” way.
How will the new pandemic recovery funding be spent?
School districts will receive allocations from the province. The health and safety money can be used to cover costs for cleaning, hand hygiene, ventilation and personal protective equipment, while mental health funding will cover supports for both students and staff. What those measures will look like will vary from district to district based on their particular local needs.
Districts will also have some flexibility in how they spend the money designated to address learning impacts.
“We want to ensure those resources are used to meet local needs,” Whiteside said.
What about masks?
Guidance on mask wearing in schools will be confirmed later this summer and will “align with broader provincial direction,” Whiteside said.
Henry said masks are just one of the “layers of protection” against the virus, calling them “the layer of last resort.”
“When we had high levels of transmission in our communities, mask wearing became more important,” she said.
Henry said masks proved to be more useful in certain situations, such as “closed settings, when we’re talking loudly, when we have lots of people together.”
She said the protection of mask wearing needs to be balanced against the challenges of expecting children, especially younger children, to wear masks.
“I don’t expect we’ll be in that situation in the coming school year where we’ll need that level of support all the time, but there may be situations – if we have clusters in our community, if the rates go up in a specific area, then we may recommend mask wearing in certain situations,” she said.
What about typical school activities that didn’t happen this year – such as assemblies, field trips, concerts and sports tournaments?
“Those are things we believe we can get back to, and it is because we have so many people in the community, and in the school community, protected,” Henry said.
She said all of those activities are important parts of the school experience.
“We know that some children learn best through things like music, or physical education. We need to have those opportunities for all children to learn in the way that works for them,” she said. “Those are important parts of the school year.”
But she also cautioned that health and school officials will need to continue to monitor what’s happening in their communities, and the province’s “rapid response teams” will remain in place to do just that.
In some cases, she said, activities may be suspended for a period of time if transmission of the virus becomes an issue in a community.
Why is the province confident about moving to a “near normal” school year?
Both Whiteside and Henry stressed the biggest reason for optimism: vaccination.
“With more than 50% of children aged 12 to 17 already receiving their first dose of vaccine, and those numbers continue to grow, we can plan for a much more typical school year starting in the fall,” Whiteside said.
Henry said the vaccines have been a game changer.
“We should not expect that things will be the same in September, and that’s because we have safe and effective vaccines,” she said, noting that’s the reason why school staff were prioritized for their shots. “Having that group of adults that are most at risk in the school setting would protect both them and the children that were in the classroom.”
She said the protection from vaccines will, by extension, protect those children who aren’t yet eligible to be immunized.
“Even if young children are not immunized, we know that they, one, aren’t going to be infected as often; that they are protected from the adults and older children around them being protected, and that they’re less likely to have severe effects from COVID anyway,” she said. “It is important that we get all of the adults and older children immunized with their two doses.”
What if the situation worsens come fall?
Henry said health officials will continue to monitor the progress of the pandemic.
“We don’t yet know how badly it’s going to cause outbreaks or clusters or spread in our community this next fall,” she said.
Whiteside said the “rapid response teams” that include both health authority and school district staff will continue their work into the fall so they can continue to monitor the situation “on the ground” and adapt accordingly.
Will parents continue to be alerted to COVID-19 cases in their children’s classrooms?
Neither Whiteside nor Henry directly addressed the issue of exposure notification letters – which, currently, are routinely sent out to families and staff in each school community whenever there is an “exposure” (that is, whenever someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 was found to have been in the school during their potentially infectious period).
But Henry said public health officials will continue to do “case management” to understand each case that’s transmitted. She said public health has also started its overall surveillance, as it does each year with influenza – meaning systematic testing of people with respiratory symptoms to understand what viruses are circulating in the community.
“In some communities, if we start to see transmission of COVID, we will take those measures and make sure that the communities are aware,” she said. “It may be that we need to step up screening. It may be that some classes may need to make sure that children are staying home and that we’ll be notifying families.”
Henry said health officials will continue to work with schools when and if cases arise – and she said that’s likely.
“It’s probable. We have it every year; we have influenza clusters, and we’ll be managing them the same way: working with every single school, every community. But what we don’t expect to see is that need to widespread shut things down across the board,” she said.
“Most people being protected means that it’s not going to spread in the same way.”
The Record has asked Fraser Health whether the existing notification system will continue and whether its website listing school exposures will remain active in the coming school year.
At this point, a Fraser Health spokesperson was not aware of any plans to change the system but noted it’s unlikely those decisions would be made until later in the summer. (The Record has asked to receive further information when and if it’s available; this story will be updated if new information arrives.)
How can parents be reassured that schools are safe?
Questioned about the limitations of the data available regarding cases in schools over the past year, Henry replied: “We don’t have microchips in every child and every teacher to be able to know exactly who transmitted to whom.”
But she said much work has been done on a local and individual level and that health officials have a “good understanding” of what happened in schools across the province.
She said two separate studies – one in Vancouver Coastal Health and one in Fraser Health – showed school transmissions were “very rare.”
(Henry did not address the fact that the two studies in question both presented data collected before variants of concern had risen to prominence in B.C. The Vancouver Coastal study covered the September to December period, while the Fraser Health study looked at cases in schools between Jan. 1 and March 7 – before the rise of variants and before the peak of B.C.’s third wave.)
Henry did say the province will continue to have “robust surveillance” of the situation in communities and schools as it heads into the fall.
She also reiterated her often-heard message that exposures in schools reflected the situation in the communities around them.
“And now with the immunization that we have and the protection that we have in our communities from vaccine, we expect that all of that will come down, as we’ve been seeing in the last few months and weeks,” she said.