While there are still more questions than answers about the return to school in September, Squamish parents, kids, teachers and administrators are starting to get a better idea of what to expect.
On July 29, the provincial government announced a return to full-time in-class learning Sept. 8, as part of B.C.'s Education Restart Plan.
"The classroom is an essential part of a child's social, academic and mental development, and that's why we are working hard to ensure students can safely spend the next school year with their teachers and classmates," said Minister of Education Rob Fleming in a news release. "We were the only jurisdiction in Canada that brought students back into the classroom provincewide before the end of the school year and this has given us valuable information that we are using to develop our plans, ensuring health and safety at schools remain paramount."
On the advice of provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, students will be divided into learning groups or cohorts.
Students in elementary and middle school will be in groups with up to 60 students.
Secondary school students will have up to 120 peers in their group.
A one-time investment of $45.6 million for extra cleaning is part of the BC COVID-19 Action Plan. This will go toward, among other safety measures, the sanitation of high-contact surfaces, an increased number of hand-hygiene stations and the availability of masks upon request.
Elementary schools will remain organized into classrooms.
Middle schools where students move from class-to-class and take a range of subjects taught by different teachers may need to be reorganized for full-time, in-class learning, according to a provincial government news release.
Secondary school students will continue to be organized in classrooms.
For middle and secondary school students, sports, arts or special interest clubs will be allowed, if physical distancing between members of different learning groups and reduced physical contact can be practised.
Exactly what back school will look like day-to-day come fall isn't clear yet, said school district 48 Supt. Lisa McCullough, but will be ironed out in the coming weeks.
"Our education leadership team is coming back to work earlier than usual, hunkering down and starting to make plans," she said, adding there would be consultation with the unions and with other groups.
Going back to school come fall will not be voluntary, that much is clear McCullough said.
"Students are going to be expected to participate in an education program, as always, so it won't be voluntary in nature," she said.
As before the pandemic, there are other learning options for students whose families decide they prefer not to go back — such as online learning programs and homeschool classes.
Asked what about teachers who may have conditions that put them at high risk for COVID-19, McCullough said accommodations will be made according to the process teachers have always followed.
"That will be continued to be looked at individually," she said.
While it is a strange time and there is much to do to prepare, McCullough added she is excited students will be back learning in a school setting with their teachers.
"And that students who were struggling with the online learning approach will now get that face-to-face support that they have been wanting. Some of our more vulnerable populations will be able to get into schools now and get that support."
In terms of substitute teachers, or teachers on call, McCullough said that is an issue that remains to be ironed out.
"Will we have enough teachers in a cohort to meet the needs? Will TOCs be able to be used for those things? Or will we require that? I really don't know at this point, but I don't think we will be necessarily dropping different teachers into cohorts often."
The province's public health department will determine whether or not another adult can be brought in or out of a cohort.
If a student gets sick, there is a protocol with the local public health team, McCullough said.
"When we know of a communicable disease, we convene very quickly. The public health officers are excellent at getting together with us immediately, they build a plan, they advise us what the protocol is."
Regarding whether high school students will have lockers, McCullough said she assumes that they won't and that it will be a pack-in-pack out situation but again, more details are to follow.
Sea to Sky Teachers Association weighs in
April Lowe, president, Sea to Sky Teachers Association, which represents teachers in Squamish, Whistler and Pemberton, told The Chief the plan needs more work.
"At this point, there are too many unanswered questions."
Lowe said the association would like to see the start date moved back to give school staff time to get ready and to adjust to any new structures.
"While June helped us prepare for September, we had a hybrid model this past spring, with less than half of the number of students to keep safe," she said.
"At this time, I am unaware of the particular impact the school restart will have in Sea to Sky, but I will be working with District administration to ensure that September is as safe as possible for students and staff members in SD#48," she added.
Parents and students will hear further details from their schools as the summer progresses.
School districts have to submit final reopening plan details to the ministry on Aug. 26.