(Minister Rob Fleming announcing B.C.'s back-to-school plan for September 2020)

The B.C. Ministry of Education, alongside the Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, has announced a plan that aims to have most students back in classrooms on September 8.

This plan will see students divided into learning groups or cohorts in order to reduce the number of contacts each individual has in school. These groups will remain consistent for the remainder of the school term.

For elementary and middle schools, there will be 60 people in each cohort, while in secondary school, there will be a maximum of 120 people in each group.

However larger schools—those that cater to 1,500-2,000 students and are located primarily in the Lower Mainland and the Okanagan—may need to come up with a hybrid approach with a blend of remote, online learning and in-classroom instruction, as seen in June.

See also: Around 60,000 B.C. students return to school on first day of reopening on June 1

According to the provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, the size of the cohort among younger age groups is smaller because it is ostensibly more challenging for younger children to maintain physical distancing and consistent hygiene measures.

“We know how important it is for children to be back in school – to both support their emotional and mental health and their ability to socialize and to learn,” said Henry.

“Being back in school is also crucial to support many parents in being able to work, but we must do it safely. We ask for families and workplaces to continue to be flexible as we come into the fall.”

Bell times, lunch times, and schedules will be adjusted by schools and school districts in order to ensure students and staff stay in their learning groups.

But in some situations, like on school buses, sticking to these cohorts will be impossible and in those cases, the focus on maintaining physical distances is key, says Henry.

According to Stephanie Higginson, President of the BC School Trustees Association, some schools are working on revamping how they schedule courses in order to fit this cohort rule.

One possibility is dividing the school year on a quarterly basis which means students could take just two courses for shorter portions of the year.

The provincial government website that details what people can expect in the school system come September also adds that “protective self-isolation”—presumably remote learning options—will only be recommended for on a case-by-case basis for children with severe immune compromise.

Health and safety measures

In addition to introducing the cohort system, B.C. has injected a one-time investment of $45.6 million into the K-12 education system through the B.C. COVID-19 Action Plan.

Here’s a breakdown of what those funds will be used for:

  • $23 million for additional staff and staff time for cleaning schools,
  • $9.2 million for improving and increasing access to hand hygiene,
  • $5.1 million for cleaning supplies,
  • $3.1 million to independent schools,
  • $2.2 million to ensure re-usable 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,
  • $3 million to support remote learning, such as technology loans or software to support students with disabilities or complex needs.

Students and staff will not be required to wear a face mask or covering but they will be available for everyone to use upon request.

According to the new guidelines, extracurricular activities in middle and secondary schools, like sports, arts or special interest clubs can take place if physical distance can be maintained between members of different learning groups, and if those in the same cohort can reduce physical contact.

Staff and students, or parents and guardians of students, must also assess themselves everyday in order to make sure they do not have any symptoms of COVID-19.

Families can expect to hear specific plans from their school district by August 26.