VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) — Students and teachers across B.C. are kicking off a school year unlike any before it this September.
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the province to implement a suite of new practices and protocols to prevent the coronavirus from spreading in public schools.
While kids will face some risk of getting COVID-19 when they return to school, they will also face other risks, such as “traffic accidents, falls and fights,” UBC medical geographer Tom Koch said.
“School can be a scary place,” he said. “So the question is one of ‘risks’ that are manageable. We manage without thinking [about] the normal risks, and teach kids to cross at intersections, to not balance on some high bar, and to not fight, at least with kids bigger than they are.”
Jason Ellis, an associate professor of education at UBC, also acknowledged there is some risk involved with the province’s return-to-school plan.
“However, parents need to know that teachers and other adults in schools care deeply about their kids and are doing their best to balance risk against the need to provide in-classroom learning,” he said.
Ellis said the risks are worth it because education is vital.
While B.C.’s new plan may not be perfect, he said, there are no “magic bullets,” as some people have suggested.
“As these stories go, our kids will be safe if we just mandate masks. Or just delay the return of school two weeks so staff can get health or safety training. Or just learn outdoors. Or just cap class sizes. Or just rent extra classroom space. Or just replace HVAC systems. Or just do what Denmark did. Or just spend $43 million, $143 million, $2 billion on a safe return. Or… ”
Parents’ anxiety about sending their kids to school is understandable, but there are no magic bullets.
“Dr. Henry has told us that we have to learn to live with this virus, perhaps for some time. Living with it means learning with it too. It’s going to be scary. It’s going to be imperfect,” Ellis said.
Answers to some frequently asked questions should give students and their parents an idea of what the school year to come might look like.
Are kids vulnerable to the coronavirus?
Mounting evidence from around the world shows people under the age of 20 face a low risk of getting and spreading COVID-19. And if they do get it, they are unlikely to get seriously sick.
The B.C. government says serological testing has shown less than one per cent of children in the province have had COVID-19.
The province says that when children do get the virus, it’s usually from adults, not from other people their age.
When do schools resume?
Like most years, public schools will reopen the week of Labour Day, which is on Sept. 7 this year. But this year, educators will have two extra days to prepare before students return.
So Thursday, Sept. 10 will be the first days of school for most students.
The first two days back (Sept. 10 and 11) will be focused on orientation, to allow students to get used to the new normal. They will get classes assigned, find out which learning group they’re in and practice the new routine and rules.
What are schools doing to prevent the coronavirus from spreading?
Schools are breaking staff and students into learning groups that will be mostly separated from others in their school for all or part of the school year.
Learning groups will include up to 60 people in elementary and middle schools and up to 120 in secondary schools.
Learning groups can be as small as one class of 20 to 30 students, a group of classes that occasionally join together for certain activities such as physical education or music, or a group of high school students who have several classes together for a quarter or semester.
Most school districts are moving towards a quarterly semester system – breaking the year into four blocks – to ensure learning groups remain as small as possible, an education ministry spokesperson said.
“Learning groups provide a range of benefits for students including more in-class learning time, increased peer interaction and support, and decreased feelings of isolation,” the province says.
If a student wants to socialize with a friend in another learning group, they will be expected to physically distance while doing so.
Can B.C. dramatically reduce class sizes?
“Reducing class sizes that dramatically would require B.C. to hire thousands of teachers. These teachers do not exist,” he said.
Will students, teachers and staff be screened for COVID-19?
“Daily screenings start at home,” the Ministry of Education says.
It’s up to parents to make sure their children don’t go to school if they have potential COVID-19 symptoms, if they’ve been outside the country within two weeks, or if they’ve been in close contact with someone who has tested positive for the coronavirus.
School staff are responsible for screening themselves for the same factors.
The B.C. government only recommends COVID-19 testing for people with symptoms or who have been identified as needing a test by a health professional, such as when they’ve been in close contact with a confirmed case.
What should I do if my kid is feeling sick?
Anyone with symptoms consistent with the cold, flu or COVID-19 should stay home – even if those symptoms are very mild.
“If you notice a sudden change in the severity or type of symptoms your child normally experiences, you may want to keep your child at home and seek advice from a health-care provider,” the province says.
Will my kid have to self-isolate at home if someone at school gets COVID-19?
If your kid hasn’t been in direct contact with a confirmed COVID-19 patient, they won’t have to self isolate.
“As with everyone else, contacts of a contact don’t need to self-isolate,” said Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry in a statement provided by the Ministry of Health.
If a student, teacher, or school staff member does test positive for COVID-19, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll have to self-isolate at home for the typical 14 days.
“Students and staff who are in the cohort of a confirmed COVID-19 case may not be true contacts,” an education ministry spokesperson said. “Public health decides who is a true contact based on their investigation.”
But members of such a learning group will need to isolate at home while the investigation is underway, a Ministry of Health spokesperson said.
What are the rules for wearing masks?
The province says every student and staff member will be given two masks when they return to school in September.
Elementary school students do not have to wear masks.
In middle and high schools, all students and staff will be required to wear a mask while in “high traffic areas,” including school buses, hallways, and anytime they leave their classroom or learning group and are unable to physically distance from other people.
Will kids get to play sports?
Sports and other extracurricular activities will only be allowed within learning groups. All sports played between schools are on hold for the time being.
What other school protocols are there?
Schools are encouraged to limit the use of shared items during group activities and to clean and disinfect items as often as possible and to discourage sharing food and personal items.
High touch surfaces in all schools, including door knobs, light switches, toilet handles, keyboards and toys, should be cleaned at least twice a day, the province says.
Schools will also install barriers where people cannot maintain a distance of two metres from one another, including in cafeterias and at reception desks.
Do kids have to attend school?
B.C.’s School Act requires all children between the ages of five and 16 to receive an education. School district superintendents are tasked with investigating reports of children who are not registered in any type of schooling.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean parents have to send their kid to the neighbourhood public school this fall. They can enrol them in online courses (called distributed learning by the province) or homeschool them.
There are currently 56 public schools and 16 private schools in B.C. offering distributed learning programs, according to Ministry of Education spokesperson Craig Sorochan.
“We are currently working with our education partners to find creative solutions to support student choice while keeping students connected to their community school,” he said.
But Sorochan said B.C. public schools are taking precautions to ease the fears of parents worried about the potential spread of coronavirus.
“We are encouraging parents to enrol their children as they normally would and will continue to work to build their confidence in the safe restart of in-class learning,” he said.
“This is an unprecedented time, and school districts will work with individual families to address concerns on a case-by-case basis, including helping families find a program that supports their needs.”
Ellis, the professor of education, said the province has been strongly encouraging parents to pick either in-class education or distributed learning and commit to it for the school year.
Otherwise, he said, there could disrupt the system.
Currently, less than five per cent of students are in the distributed learning system. If there’s a large increase, school districts will have to “radically reassign teachers,” Ellis said.
“However, if a significant number of families newly using [distributed learning] decides, after two or three weeks of school, that in fact the risk of COVID is low and they want to return to their regular school, this will be profoundly disruptive to class organization and class size as schools reassign again (and again and again).”
If a student has a compromised immune system or underlying health issue, they should consult their doctor before returning to school, the province says.
“If a medical professional determines that a student cannot attend school due to their health risks, the school district will work with the family to review alternative learning options for the student,” the education ministry says.
The risk of school transmission and grandparents
Many British Columbians with kids in school also have elderly parents, some of whom have vulnerable health, live in long-term care, or both.
“As class resumes in the fall, parents need to make the decisions that are right for their families and that they are comfortable with,” B.C. Ministry of Health spokesperson Shannon Greer said in an email.
While children are less likely than adults to catch or spread COVID-19, she said families may still want to take extra precautions to keep their elders safe.
“That may mean having their child participate in Zoom calls with a grandparent in a care home, rather than visit in person,” she said.
Families worried about keeping grandparents safe but kids educated, need to find the course of action that’s right for them, said Michael Curry, a clinical assistant professor at UBC.
“It is a balancing act – there is nothing in life that is truly risk-free. People need to decide whether the risk of contracting COVID-19 is outweighed by the social, educational and possibly economic benefits of having your child in school,” he said.
“A family with two grandparents at home, who has a child that works well independently and can focus on online resources is in a different position than a family with a single parent that works two jobs to make ends meet and has a child with a learning disability.”
How do I make sure my kid follows COVID-19 rules at school?
It can be tough getting kids to follow rules at the best of times. It will be an added challenge making sure students follow physical distancing protocols after months away from school and friends.
Tom Koch, a UBC professor of medical geography, said parents should make sure their children understand the reasons for the new protocols.
“He or she should be informed that this is for his, his parents and his grandparents’ protection,” Koch said.