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British Columbians have a lot to absorb ahead of back to school, union says

Last Updated Jul 30, 2020 at 5:31 pm PST

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B.C.'s back-to-school plan has raised some concerns from parents and teachers

Union representing school support, maintenance workers in B.C. says some issues have been addressed

Province has plans to bring most students back to classrooms this September, if parents choose to send them

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – The B.C. government’s new return-to-school plan amid the COVID-19 pandemic is generating a lot of discussion.

There still seems to be a lot of confusion about what exactly the new policies that were announced are going to mean when most students head back to the classroom on Sept. 8.

What we do know is that kids and teachers are going to be assigned to cohorts, which are essentially smaller learning groups, that they will stay with throughout the year. These cohorts will depend on what year the child is in, with students in younger grades expected to be assigned to groups of up to 60, while high school students will be in groups up to 120.

There has been a lot of reaction to the unveiling of B.C.’s next phase of its education restart plan, with many techers and parents saying the new rules are vague and raise a lot of concern.
Among these concerns is whether or not masks should be mandatory. As part of the province’s plan, $2.2 million is set aside “to ensure reusable face masks are available to staff if they choose to wear one, and for all students who need to travel on school buses or public transportation outside of their learning group.”

There are also questions around spacing within classrooms and how physical distancing will be ensured.

However, despite uneasiness from many, the union representing school support workers is a little less concerned.

“I pushed hard to get extra money for cleaning and … $23 million is on the table now for extra staffing for custodial services across the province. But this is going to take a lot of talk, a lot of conversation in the days ahead. But I don’t know what the alternative is. We could go to more remote learning, distant learning or close the school system, and I think no one wants that, of course,” CUPE BC President Paul Faoro tells NEWS 1130, adding his members appear to be satisfied with what they’re hearing so far.

He says there’s “a lot to absorb” ahead of the shift in what school will look like amid COVID-19, and notes a lot of work will need to be done in the days ahead.

“But I think everyone agrees that students are better back in school and fundamentally taking the advice of Dr. Henry is critical,” Faoro adds.

Faoro agrees there’s going to be a learning curve even before students start the school year in just a few weeks.

“A lot of new terminology. The term ‘cohort’ is a new term, I think people need to understand that. And there’s certainly a lot more work,” he says. However, he notes the part-time resumption of classes in June served as a stepping stone.

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“Certainly there was some levels of concern in some areas, but I think the dialogue is open and I think we should be able to resolve any situation in September if something does pop up.”

The June school restart saw almost 200,000 students safely return to the classroom, giving students a chance to acclimatize to new safety protocols and ensuring the province had information to plan for the 2020-21 school year.

When it comes to the mask debate, Faoro admits he’s no expert in the matter and that he’s heard from both sides of the argument. However, he’s “pleased” the province will be providing masks for those who want to wear them.

CUPE represents more than 30,000 K to Grade 12 members, Faoro says, adding his union will be keeping a close eye on what’s to come.

With safety top of mind, Faoro says the union has made it clear that consistent messaging is key. “Safety of course trumps everything,” he says, adding any concerns need to be addressed as soon as possible.

Read the full plan: 

BC Education return to school plan covid-19

While this new plan from the province is a blueprint, individual school districts will have until the end of August to sort out their individual needs and concerns.

Education Minister Rob Fleming has stressed British Columbians need to be flexible, and that plans could change if there’s another wave of the coronavirus or if there are any community outbreaks.

He said on Thursday that all B.C. students are expected to attend schools in the fall and that getting away from remote learning is the goal for September.

Students with medical exemptions, such as those who are immunocompromised, will have other options.

-With files from Marcella Bernardo and Mike Hall

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to include the education minister’s comments that all students are expected to attend schools in the fall.