Students and parents can expect a near-normal return to school in British Columbia this fall as regular activities like assemblies and field trips are phased in and any transmission of COVID-19 is monitored.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said there will be a "heightened concern" if the virus starts to spread in communities, but public health teams would manage it like any other communicable disease including influenza.

Henry said some school activities may have to be temporarily suspended and timing of classes could be changed to prevent crowding in hallways, for example, but regular measures like handwashing and staying at home when sick will continue to be emphasized.

Initiatives that kept the vast majority of B.C. schools open this year and a high rate of vaccination have paved the way for a smooth transition back to school in September, when parents can again go into schools, where transmission was rare, she said.

The back-to-school plan parallels the launch of British Columbia's fourth and final step of reopenings on Labour Day as everyone who is eligible is expected to have been offered both doses of vaccine, pending availability.

"That means by September, we will be back to a much more normal school experience," Henry said.

Rapid response teams of representatives from schools and public health staff have been in place since February in every health region to review exposures of COVID-19 and enhance safety plans.

Henry said that support will continue in the fall, but parents will also have to do their part by working from home if their child is sick so employers would need to accommodate them.

"Those are the things that we need to commit to for this next school year, making sure that we do have the ability to keep kids caught up on their school work, if and when they have illness, and parents are able to support them by staying home."

Students and parents can expect a near-normal return to #school in British Columbia this fall as regular activities like assemblies and field trips are phased in and any transmission of #COVID19 is monitored. #bcpoli

Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside said the province will continue working over the summer with a committee that includes educators, parents and public health experts to finalize school reopening plans that are also expected to include relaxed restrictions around sports.

Students would no longer be limited to cohorts or learning groups, she said.

Whiteside announced $25.6 million in funding for cleaning and disinfecting, hand hygiene for students and staff as well as improved ventilation. She said while some systems have been upgraded, some improvements still need to be made.

Henry said vaccination is one of the most important factors in prevent transmission of COVID-19 so it's important for everyone who is eligible to get immunized with both doses by the fall.

"We're on track to have that happen well before September so that gives us a lot of benefits going into this next year, that we can get back to a much more normal year," she said.

More than 50 per cent of youth aged 12 to 17 have received a first dose of vaccine, the Education Ministry said.

Teri Mooring, president of the B.C. Teachers Federation, said some students should be offered remote learning as they transition back to the classroom.

"A lot of families may not be comfortable sending their children back and may also have other barriers to be able to advocate fully for their children," Mooring said.

The committee working with the Education Ministry is set to reconvene in August and any concerns about the need for remote learning will be addressed then and may be more applicable to areas where vaccination rates are lower, she said.

Tyrone McNeil, president of the First Nations Education Steering Committee, which is one of the groups that worked with the ministry on back-to-school plans, said he is optimistic about the return to school.

However, he said some First Nations could again close their communities to try and keep the virus from spreading and protect elders, so he wants to know how students would be supported if they couldn't attend school due to any flare-ups of the virus during the regular respiratory season.

"We proposed a plan to the ministry on reporting and accountability around that," he said. "We just can't take for granted that school districts will do the right thing, so we need formal reporting."

— By Camille Bains in Vancouver

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 17, 2021.

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