COMMENTARY: As classrooms reopen, British Columbia faces a worrisome return to school

Kids in British Columbia are getting set to head back to school, but only on a voluntary, part-time basis.

In a province that has enjoyed considerable success in driving down the infection rate of COVID-19, you can bet other provinces will be watching closely as B.C. classrooms reopen.

Public schools across Canada remain largely shut due to the coronavirus pandemic, with most provinces cancelling the remainder of the school year.

Ontario was the latest to write off the rest of the public school calendar until at least September.

“I’m just not going to risk it,” Ontario Premier Doug Ford said this week.

“It wasn’t an easy decision to make, but it was the right decision.”

In Quebec, elementary schools outside Montreal reopened on May 11, though high schools, junior colleges and universities are closed until September.

Schools in other provinces are pretty much shuttered through the fall.

Now, enter British Columbia with the country’s boldest back-to-school plan to date.

B.C. schools are set to reopen on a voluntary, part-time basis on Monday, June 1. But it will be a first day of school like no other.

School start times and instruction breaks will be staggered throughout the day to encourage physical distancing.

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Pupils in elementary schools will attend half-days, while middle schools and high schools will be limited to 20 per cent in-class instruction, or one day per week per student.

Desks will be spread out to keep students apart. Assemblies, sports, recess and other risky activities like music classes will be cancelled. Kids displaying any symptoms of illness will be asked to stay home.

For parents and students, the return to school is strictly voluntary. Any kids who stay home will have the option to continue online learning.

Teachers will be required to show up for work unless they are displaying even the mildest symptoms of illness. And teachers with underlying health conditions that make them more vulnerable to the virus will be able to work from home.

Hygiene will be paramount, and students will be instructed to wash their hands frequently throughout the day. And school surfaces will be cleaned and sanitized frequently as well.

“We would not open our schools if we did not believe it was safe to do so,” B.C. Premier John Horgan said this week.

“These are challenging times, times filled with anxiety. But we’ve tried to reduce that anxiety as much as possible.”

Sounds like a plan. But there’s still a lot of worry out there.

“I have heard from hundreds of teachers who are worried about returning to school,” Matt Westphal, president of the Surrey Teachers Association, told me.

In the fast-growing suburbs of Vancouver, especially Surrey, teachers are asking many questions about how the back-to-school plan is supposed to work, he said.

For example: who is going to do all that frequent “deep cleaning” of school surfaces when some schools don’t even have a full-time janitor?

“Show me how this is going to be safe,” Westphal said.

“Show me how we’re going to be able to meet these really stringent cleanliness standards, which would be difficult even at the best of times before COVID-19.”

He also worries about teachers with underlying health conditions, like diabetes. Or teachers who have family members with compromised immune systems.

He wonders: is it really worth it for just four weeks of part-time classes?

“Teachers worry about whether they are going to be forced to choose between their livelihood and the safety of themselves or people they love,” he told me.

“They wonder sometimes what the educational value will be compared to all these other concerns.”

Some parents are worried, too. An online petition started to keep B.C. schools closed is gaining steam, even though student attendance at schools will be strictly voluntary.

All of which has many people wondering just how many B.C. kids — and how many teachers — will actually show up for class on June 1.

Mike Smyth is host of ‘The Mike Smyth Show’ on Global News Radio 980 CKNW in Vancouver and a commentator for Global News. You can reach him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @MikeSmythNews​.

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