Parents, Teachers, and Students Worry as K-12 Resumes in B.C. Schools

Those who will be affected by it the most share their perspectives on the back-to-school plan

(Kristen Frier)

Around 634,000 students across B.C. will be returning to school on Sept. 10 while concerns about a potential second wave of COVID-19 continue to grow.

The B.C. government announced on July 29 that the province was planning a full return to school. This was met with immediate criticism from the B.C. Teachers’ Federation.

“The reopening needs to be safe, careful, and get the buy-in of teachers, support staff, parents, and students,” BCTF President Teri Mooring Mooring said in a news release published that same day.

The return will be carried out over the span of an “orientation week” from Sept. 8 to 11, explains a B.C. government news release. Teachers and staff will return on Sept. 8, leaving them two days to learn about the updated guidelines in their schools before students join them on the 10th for their two-day orientation.

B.C.’s Back to School Plan has three principles designed to keep everyone safe: New health and safety measures, increased funding to keep schools safe and clean, and the implementation of learning groups to help reduce the transmission of COVID-19.

Health and safety measures

It is not mandatory to wear masks in classrooms. Still, masks are required to be worn in high-traffic areas or environments where social distancing can not be maintained. Students have the option of wearing a mask throughout the school day.

Elementary students are not required to wear masks. In fact, they may be more likely to touch their face and need help putting masks on and taking them off, which would make the masks less effective.

While physical distancing will not be enforced in learning groups and classrooms, it will be promoted through classroom setups. As most have likely seen in grocery stores during the pandemic, schools will use floor markers to control traffic flow. They will also have designated entrance and exit doors.

Physical distancing of two meters is required outside of these assigned groups including during extra-curricular activities for middle and high school students and staff.

Schools will support personal hygiene by providing regular opportunities for staff and students to wash and sanitize their hands. Frequently-touched surfaces will be cleaned and sanitized at least twice every 24 hours in addition to the daily general school cleaning.

“A learning group is a group of students and staff who remain together throughout the school quarter, semester, or year and who primarily interact with each other,” reads the Back to School Plan.

Learning group sizes vary depending on whether a student is in elementary, middle, or high school. The maximum number of students and staff in elementary and middle school learning groups is 60, and the maximum for high school is 120.

The Provincial Health Officer recommended dividing students into these learning groups to “help reduce the transmission of COVID-19.” The benefits of doing this include more in-class learning, peer interaction and support, and lessened feelings of isolation.

Putting students into groups is also strategic for tracing potential COVID-19 contacts and limiting the reach of learning disruptions if a case is confirmed in a learning group.

It is expected that parents and caregivers screen their children daily before considering dropping them off at school.

If a student is displaying COVID-19 symptoms, has been out of the country in the last 14 days, or has had close contact with a person who has COVID-19, they will not be allowed to attend school. From there, parents and caregivers must keep the child at home to self-isolate and seek medical advice.

If one of their household members or loved ones are exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms, a student or staff member is still allowed to attend school as long as they do not experience symptoms themselves. The symptomatic person is expected to seek an assessment from a health care professional.

Increased resources for keeping schools safe

If the student is at school when they start experiencing symptoms, they will be given a mask and be separated from the group while they contact their parents or guardian. Custodians will disinfect areas the symptomatic person was in contact with, and the school will inform public health experts of the potential case.

From there, public health will work to contact and identify any potential cases, inform those who came in close contact, potentially suggest 14-day isolation, and provide follow-up recommendations.

The school will provide learning support to students self-isolating, and public health officials and the school will determine if it’s best to continue providing in-class learning.

The Back to School Plan promises increased funding to keep schools safe and clean. The provincial government will invest $45.6 million into different health and safety measures.

Approximately $23 million will go towards more staff, $5.1 million will go towards cleaning supplies, and $9.2 million will go towards washing and sanitizing.

The plan outlines $2.2 million for reusable face masks for students and teachers and $3 million for facilitating remote learning and technology. Lastly, $3.1 million will support health and safety measures for private schools.

Anxiety from parents, teachers, and students

Lizanne Foster, a woman of colour who has taught in the Surrey school district for 23 years, has been vocal about her concerns with B.C.’s plan.

She says the government’s plan emphasizes how necessary and important in-class learning is for students’ mental health but completely ignores how anxious children and youth are feeling about COVID-19.

“If people who actually worked with kids were part of this plan, they would know that kids are going to come to school anxious,” she says. “They worry that they will be the cause of somebody else [getting sick].”

Foster also says students are worried about their loved ones. She says some have already asked her if their parents and pets are going to be okay.

Christa Barberis, a teacher of 23 years working in the Langley school district, expresses the same concerns.

“I also really worry about the anxiety that kids would have if they’re living in a multi-generational home, the fear that they might have going home, and if they’re living with their grandparents, the worry … of possibly bringing something home to them,” she says.

Her conversation with The Runner doesn’t reflect the opinions of the Langley School District.

Both Barberis and Foster fear that teachers — and consequently, their loved ones — could be at risk by going back to the classroom during a pandemic.

“Will my husband be able to see his parents? They are almost 90 years old. My biggest worry is that I’d give it to my in-laws,” says Barberis.

Foster says the way schools reopened in June was significantly safer in terms of class size, school capacity, and physical distancing than September seems to be.

“[Teachers] left in June anticipating that in September we were going to start at 50 per cent, and then we would have to go down to 25 per cent density because cases would go up,” she says. “That 29th of July announcement was like the rug being pulled up from under you.”

She doesn’t think it’s the right time to start the new school year in full.

“How do we go to 100 per cent, 30 kids in a class, no physical distancing, no masks? How does this make sense when every single day, 5,000 times a day, the most effective thing we are being told is physical distancing and wearing masks in enclosed spaces?” asks Foster.

Rhianna Michael, a self-employed, single mother of two elementary-school-age children, is worried about COVID-19 spreading through classes.

“It’s like [the people who created the plan] have never been to an elementary school. That is the craziest part to me. [Kids] lick each other because it is ‘funny,’” says Michael.

“I understand that some parents rely on school for full-time [child care] so they can work and I appreciate that but they haven’t considered all facets of it so I was apprehensive immediately,” Michael says.

She’s also concerned about being unable to work if a student brings COVID-19 to class. As a hairstylist with her own salon, she has already had her job taken from her and plans to face more employment difficulties in the fall.

For this reason, she decided to homeschool her children from September until a better plan is put in place.

Stephanie Arnold, who is going into Grade 12, is worried about her immunocompromised family members this school year.

“Some of my family members have not-the-best immune systems,” she says. “What if they get COVID? What is going to happen to them?”

Despite their concerns, both Foster and Barberis are looking forward to seeing their students again.

While Arnold has mixed feelings about returning to in-class learning, she is also eager to see her favourite teachers and counsellor.

“I have courses that I’m really excited to take where I actually get to experience it with the teacher and not just through a screen,” she says.

“I am so excited about going into the classroom and just getting the energy from my students because that is what I love,” says Barberis. “I can’t wait to work with kids again.”

For more about B.C.’s plan for going back to school, visit the B.C. government’s website.

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