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B.C. wants to learn from New Zealand, other provinces before opening schools

VICTORIA — British Columbia's education minister says he wants to learn from other provinces and countries like New Zealand before starting to reopen schools, but no plans will be announced until the health and safety of staff and students are fully

VICTORIA — British Columbia's education minister says he wants to learn from other provinces and countries like New Zealand before starting to reopen schools, but no plans will be announced until the health and safety of staff and students are fully addressed.

Rob Fleming said Tuesday scenarios are being considered for what would be a controlled and measured return to classrooms, though timelines have not been set.

Officials are also discussing opportunities for students who may need help from speech and language pathologists for an hour or two a day at school to allow some respite for parents, he said.

He said 23,000 computers and devices have been loaned to families. Printed material and flash drives have also been delivered to students in remote areas without access to the internet.

Several thousand children whose parents are essential service workers are attending schools and there are plans to accommodate more of them, Fleming said.

"We will continue taking direction from the provincial health officer and from the premier and cabinet on when and how schools would be able to increase the number of students receiving in-class instruction and what a phased approach would look like," he said.

Schools are set to reopen after more than a month in New Zealand on Wednesday for most students whose parents need to return to work. Fleming said the province is monitoring that country for its own plan.

"This will help us in B.C. inform an evidence-based plan that minimizes the risk for COVID-19 transmission," he said, adding that data from updated modelling on the pandemic expected to be released on Friday will be considered.

"We will return to regular school life down the road and that road will be sooner and shorter if we continue to act together and act now with measures to prevent the further spread of COVID-19."

Quebec, which has been hardest hit by COVID-19, is reopening some primary schools in mid-May. Ontario expects to keep schools closed until at least the end of May, but Premier Doug Ford has said that will depend on whether the virus remains a threat.

Fleming said B.C. will announce plans only after considering what personal protective equipment and handwashing stations are available, and the number of students who would be permitted to attend school at any given time.

Stephanie Higginson, president of the B.C. School Trustees Association, said parents of younger children in particular need a break as they try to provide care and be teachers.

"Remember that what you're doing is good enough and this is happening to (our children) too. My nine-year-old reminds me of that sometimes in ways that I don't actually see until about three hours later. And then I remember why he's acting the way he is."

Most of the students attending school in B.C. are in elementary grades.

The highest priority has been given to students whose parents work in essential jobs including health care, social services and law enforcement.

Grocery store workers and those in transportation, agriculture and sanitation jobs are part of the second category of essential workers whose kids are provided a child-care space in school.

Ritinder Matthew, a spokeswoman for the Surrey School District, said a fourth elementary school opened this week to accommodate Grades 1 to 7 students.

"We are prepared to open more sites if necessary," Matthew said.

Children from one family are kept together at the schools, which have 138 students who are practising physical distancing, Matthew said. Support workers and substitute teachers are guiding activities while teachers provide online learning for students at home.

— By Camille Bains in Vancouver.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 28, 2020.


The Canadian Press

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