The BC Teachers Federation has concerns about the province’s plan to return to classes in September.

Starting Sept. 8th, most K-12 students will return full-time as the province moves to Stage 2 of its Education Restart Plan.

BCTF president Teri Mooring says the plan needs adjusting.

“What we’re saying about the plan is that it needs a lot more work and time in order for teachers to be comfortable with it,” Mooring said.

Mooring noted that the union is calling for a delayed start to the school year so teachers have the opportunity to plan, and get the health and safety training that they are going to need moving forward.

“We are also really aware that a long weekend is a time where (provincial health officer) Dr. Bonnie Henry has really warned us about, that there tends to be a lot more cases following a long weekend so we also think that it would be prudent, directly after a long weekend, where there is a possibility that a lot more cases would be diagnosed within the two week time frame of that long weekend,” she added.

Mooring said there were a few surprises during Wednesday’s announcement.

“One was that there was a full return of students from K-12. The original Stage 2 saw a full return of kindergarten to Grade 7 students and a partial return for (Grades) 8-12. So that is a change.”

The other change is the introduction of cohorts, or groups, of students who will remain together throughout the year and who primarily interact only with each other.

“Now we need some time in order to see how that might translate to the school setting,” Mooring said. “That work is yet to be done. The working groups that the province has established… teachers have not had an opportunity to look at that at all.”

She said a June survey found a lot of concerns surrounding health and safety heading into the next school year.

“That’s something that needs to be driving the conversation in terms of back to school,” Mooring said.

However, Mooring said the teachers are dedicated to education and in-class learning and want to make sure that’s safe to come back.

“That’s our top priority. We see that there’s time to do that planning provincially,” she added.

“We are also looking for the government to ensure that school districts will collaborate with local teacher unions, as well. There’s a lot of planning that can take place provincially, but also a lot that can happen locally, and so there needs to be a lot of coordination and collaboration around that.”

She said local dialogue would ensure that all of the teachers’ voices will be heard “and their concerns are taken seriously.”

While the number of COVID-19 cases are low on places like Vancouver Island, Mooring says it only takes a few situations for the virus to spread.

“So everyone needs to be on guard. I think it’s a generalized concern among teachers in the province, and that’s why we need consistent measures in place across the entire province. We heard a commitment from the (education) minister (Rob Fleming) that those working groups and the steering committee will continue to do their work. We were heartened to hear that; that’s really important.”

She added that the union was also happy to hear that the province is investing $45.6 million as part of the BC COVID-19 Action Plan.

This will go towards increased cleaning of high-contact surfaces, more hand-hygiene stations, and the availability of masks upon request, among other safety measures.

But she says they would like to see further funding put into reducing class sizes in order to ensure physical distancing.

“We understand that it’s really important,” Mooring said.

“We heard Dr. Bonnie Henry talk about that in terms of older students, but that’s really difficult to do in a school setting where you have 30 students in a class. So a lot more time is needed to take a look at the cohort model. There’s been no opportunity for any teachers to do that, so far.”

Mooring said the teachers are calling for planning time in September, “because we understand that teachers could be in a situation where this stage would suddenly change.”

In response, the Ministry Education issued this statement:

“We know that there are some teachers who are nervous – just as there are people everywhere with concerns about the virus.

That is why we are laying out a plan – developed with Dr. Henry – with enhanced cleaning and safety measures.

We’ve been working closely with teachers throughout the planning process and will continue working with teachers on the steering committee to fine tune the details of the safe restart plan.

We all share the priority on health and safety and on supporting students’ learning and their social and mental development.

We’ve made significant new investments in health and safety including enhanced cleaning, hand hygiene and provision of masks upon request.

Districts will continue working with teachers as they make their plans on how to best implement the safe restart guidelines announced by Dr. Henry and Minister Fleming on Wednesday.”