One in three students back in classrooms in British Columbia: minister

B.C. Minister of Education Rob Fleming looks at the arrows to help maintain physical distancing during a tour at Monterey Middle School following an update on part-time return to classes at in Victoria, B.C., on Tuesday June 2, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito

VICTORIA - About one third of students returned to classrooms in British Columbia Monday and Education Minister Rob Fleming said he expects those numbers to rise.

In countries like New Zealand and Denmark, more families sent their kids back to classrooms after hearing it was safe. The B.C. government is anticipating a similar pattern, he said during a news conference at a Victoria-area middle school on Tuesday.

"You do see numbers go up, you do see interest increase among parents and kids when they see it's safe," he said.

Schools opened Monday on a part-time and optional basis for students in kindergarten through Grade 12, while online learning also continues for the final four weeks of the year.

The partial return will allow staff to prepare for a fresh term in the fall, and they will spend summer fine tuning how it will work, Fleming said.

Given the potential of a second wave of COVID-19, he said it's likely that a hybrid of in-class and online learning will be part of the next school year.

"We hope that the June restart is part of something that will help us have an even stronger start to school in September," he said.

About 90 per cent of teachers are back in class and also offering online learning. The 10 per cent who aren't have primarily been assigned full-time online teaching, the minister said.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said during her briefing Tuesday that officials can't predict what will happen between now and September, so they also can't say what the next school year will look like.

But she said it's "very likely," to be a hybrid online and in-class model.

"That's one of the reasons why going back to school and having in-classroom learning right now was so important. It was helping us understand how we could actually do this," she said.

There's good evidence to suggest that the classroom environment is incredibly important for at least some children. And it's important to support, as much as possible, children who were falling behind and may never make it up, she said.

"I fully expect all children will be back in some sort of a classroom environment come September," Henry said.

"We will get comfortable with this and look how to do it better over the summer."

Fleming said families who haven't sent their kids back to school are free to change their minds. But they are asked to inform their schools before showing up to ensure they can do so safely.

The guidelines that limit classroom capacity to 50 per cent for kindergarten through Grade 5 and 20 per cent for middle school and high school won't change, Fleming said.

"We're going to keep the density of kids in schools at a very low, gradual level no matter what."

Fleming also sent a letter Tuesday to the B.C. Black History Association asking for input on how to make news about racism and anti-racism protests a "teachable" moment. He said the goal is to strengthen the curriculum with more content about multiculturalism and specifically the history of the black community in B.C.

Students want to talk about current events, including anti-racism protests in the United States and demonstrations of solidarity in Canada, he said.

— By Amy Smart in Vancouver.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 2, 2020.

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