Viewpoint: Sending kids safely back to the classroom

A new school year unlike any other begins in just a few days. I know living through the pandemic is a worry for all of us. But I know many people, especially students, are excited about heading back to school, to connect with teachers and friends.

Health experts predict we will be living with COVID-19 for months to come. We must show young British Columbians that it’s okay to be concerned, but it’s also okay to keep learning and growing and stay connected to school and friends.

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Schools are going to look different this year, schedules are going to be different and classrooms are going to be different.

What has not changed is our government’s commitment to the health and safety of students and staff. Our ministry and schools are taking science-based, public-health advice and planning to have as many children as possible back in classrooms this September.

Schools are the best places for students. There is no substitute for in-class learning and, more than that, we know there are unintended negative consequences when children are not in school for extended periods of time.

To support schools during this pandemic, we have provided a new, one-time provincial investment of $45.6 million in COVID-19 specific funding to ensure our schools are safe for students and staff. We have ordered 1.5 million reusable face masks, that’s two masks for every student and staff member. We have provided funds to school districts to buy more cleaning supplies, to hire more custodial staff and to enhance and expand handwashing stations.

Plus, the federal government is supporting our efforts with an additional $242.4 million. This funding will support school districts to hire more teachers and support staff to help students whether they are learning remotely or in the classroom, to purchase more software licences and electronic course materials or textbooks, to help supply computers or tablets for the families who need them and to create additional WiFi hubs in remote and Indigenous communities, or provide internet access for families.

This funding will also allow schools to expand their health and safety measures, improve ventilation in buildings, purchase more personal protective equipment, install plexiglass barriers and hire even more custodial and support staff.

Every dollar of the provincial and federal funding will benefit students in BC.

School districts are reporting the majority of students are heading back to the classroom. For those who are not, I’ve directed school districts to be flexible and work with families to provide remote options that keep children connected to their school community.

The pandemic has upended our world. Many families have been making sacrifices to support their children with learning in the spring and throughout the summer, and I thank them.

I also thank teachers and education assistants who have been getting their classes and lesson plans ready; principals, vice-principals and school administrators who have connected with families to make sure they know about learning groups and what to expect in the classroom; and school support staff who are doing everything needed to keep schools clean and safe.

Our government is steadfast in its promise to work together with school communities, to respond quickly and appropriately throughout the pandemic and to focus on health and safety while delivering the highest quality education possible to students who deserve us to be at our best now and always.

BC remains one of the safest places in the world because we are in this together. Let’s continue to look out for each other, working and learning safely in school this year.

Rob Fleming is BC’s minister of education.

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