COVID-19 safe schools
Enhanced health and safety measures and learning groups are helping to keep K to 12 students safe during COVID-19.
Last updated: March 31, 2021
Keeping schools and students safe
The K-12 Daily Health Check website and app is an easy way to decide if your child should attend school based on their symptoms. It includes current health guidelines and offers an age-appropriate user-experience for K to 12 students.
Bookmark the website:
Download the app:
Daily Health Checklist:
Special safety measures help create safe schools and reduce the spread of COVID-19. These extra layers of protection measures work well in schools because they're controlled environments that have:
- Consistent groups of people
- Robust illness policies for students and staff
- The ability to have people follow effective personal practices like hand washing
Review guidance and guidelines:
- British Columbia Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) COVID-19 Public Health Guidance for K-12 School Settings
- BCCDC K-12 Schools and COVID-19 website
- Provincial COVID-19 Health & Safety Guidelines for K-12 Settings
Updated masks in schools guidelines
All K to 12 staff and all students in grades 4 to 12 are required to wear non-medical masks in all indoor areas, including:
- At their work stations (desks)
- On school buses
- Within and outside learning groups
- A person who cannot tolerate wearing a mask for health or behavioural reasons
- A person unable to put on or remove a mask without the assistance of another person
- If the mask is removed temporarily for the purposes of identifying the person wearing it
- If the mask is removed temporarily to engage in an educational activity that cannot be performed while wearing a mask. For example:
- Playing a wind instrument
- Engaging in high-intensity physical activity
- If a person is eating or drinking
- If a person is behind a barrier
- While providing a service to a person with a disability or diverse ability (including but not limited to a hearing impairment), where visual cues, facial expressions and/or lip reading/movements are important
Students in Kindergarten to grade 3 are encouraged to wear a mask indoors in schools and on school buses. Mask wearing remains a personal or family/caregiver choice for these students, and their choices must be respected.
Reducing the number of close, in-person interactions helps prevent the spread of COVID-19. Keep a safe distance from others. The BCCDC recommends at least two metres.
Within a learning group, physical distancing should include avoiding physical contact, minimizing close, prolonged, face-to-face interactions, and spreading out as much as possible within the space available.
Classrooms will be set up to promote spacing between students where possible.
Outside of a learning group, physical distancing should include avoiding physical contact and close, prolonged face-to-face interactions, spreading out as much as possible within the space available, and making sure there is two meters of space available between people from different learning groups.
Physical Distancing Strategies
- Add barriers in locations where physical distance cannot be maintained and people interact with a high number of individuals (like at a front reception desk or in a cafeteria or library)
- Seating arrangements where students directly face one another should be avoided where possible, particularly for middle and secondary schools
- Spread students and staff out to different areas when possible
- Stagger break and transition times
- Incorporate individual activities
- Remind students to keep their hands to themselves
- Buses should be cleaned and disinfected in accordance with BCCDC guidelines
- Buses should be loaded from back to front and offloaded from front to back
- Keep seating consistent and assign seats where possible. If space is available, each student should have their own seat unless sharing with a member of their household
- Bus drivers (except while driving), other adults and students in grades 4 to 12 are required to wear non-medical masks. Exceptions will be made for students and staff who cannot tolerate masks for health or behavioural reasons
- Students in grades K to 3 are encouraged to wear a mask indoors in schools and on school buses, but are not required to do so. Mask wearing remains a personal or family/caregiver choice for these students, and their choices must be respected
- Schools and school districts should keep up to date passenger lists to share with public health if contact tracing needs to occur
- Students should clean their hands before they leave home, when they leave school, and when they get home
In elementary schools, adapt group activities to limit physical contact and reduce shared items.
- Limit use of frequently-touched items that can't be easily cleaned to those that support student learning and development
Clean and disinfect frequently-touched surfaces at least twice every 24 hours, including:
- Door knobs
- Water fountains
- Light switches
- Toilet handles
- Tables, desks and chairs used by multiple students
Avoid sharing all food and drinks, including homemade foods like birthday treats or bake sale items.
Students should label all their personal items and not share them.
There is no evidence that COVID-19 is transmitted on textbooks, paper, or other paper-based products.
- Schools can share books or paper-based educational resources with students
Practicing hand hygiene
Rigorous hand washing is the most effective way to reduce the spread of illness.
- Wash hands with plain soap and water for at least 20 seconds
- You don't need antibacterial soap for COVID-19
- The temperature of the water doesn't matter, though most find warm water to be the most comfortable
- Have regular opportunities for staff and students to practice hand hygiene
- Help younger students with hand hygiene as needed
If there isn't a sink (like when students and staff are outdoors), use portable hand-washing sites or alcohol-based hand rub with at least 60% alcohol.
If hands are visibly dirty, soap and water are best. If they're not available, use an alcohol-based hand wipe followed by alcohol-based hand rub with at least 60% alcohol.
Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces at least twice every 24 hours (once during the school day).
This is in addition to a general school cleaning, which should happen at least once a day.
- Clean and disinfect any surface that is visibly dirty
- Use common cleaning and disinfectant products
- Limit frequently-touched items that aren't easy to clean
- Empty garbage containers daily
Schools may add barriers in certain locations when people can't keep a healthy distance (two metres) and when people interact with a high number of individuals (like at a front reception desk or in a cafeteria).
Use floor markings and posters to show traffic flow throughout the school.
- This may include one-way hallways and designated entrance and exit doors
Schools must keep the same number of exits and ensure they adhere to the fire code.
A learning group is a group of students and staff who remain together throughout the school quarter, semester or year and who primarily interact with each other. Learning groups were recommended by the Provincial Health Officer to help reduce the transmission of COVID-19.
For example, a learning group could be made up of:
- A single class of students (20 to 30)
- Multiple classes that sometimes join together for activities like physical education (PE) or music
- A group of secondary school students with the same courses in the same quarter or semester
Learning groups can also include staff, like:
- Specialist support staff
- Education Assistants (EAs)
Learning groups provide a range of benefits for students including more in-class learning time, increased peer interaction and support, and decreased feelings of isolation.
Why we use learning groups
Compared to other public settings, schools have a relatively consistent set of people accessing the building. Learning groups further reduce the number of interactions between students and staff.
- Learning groups allow for more students to have more in-class learning time in a closer to normal learning environment. This leads to significant academic, social and emotional benefits and minimizes learning gaps, increases peer interaction and support and decreases feelings of isolation
- Learning groups also help with contact tracing and limiting interruptions to learning if a case of COVID-19 is confirmed in a learning group
Learning group sizes
Learning groups are smallest in elementary and middle schools because it is more challenging for younger students to maintain physical distance.
Students in secondary school are better able to minimize physical contact, practice hand hygiene and recognize if they are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19.
- Elementary: 60
- Middle: 60
- Secondary: 120
The PHO order – Gatherings and Events (PDF) does not apply to activities in schools that support learning or well-being such as school meal programs as the order defines events as irregular gatherings, like a party or celebration.
Learning group examples
The following examples are for illustrative purposes only. Actual configurations of learning groups will be designed by school districts and independent schools to meet local needs and other considerations in alignment with health and safety measures to protect students and school staff.
Elementary schools will still be organized into classrooms as students’ primary learning environment and have the option to create learning groups of up to 60 students and staff who can interact more regularly.
Example, Grade 2/3
Your child is in grade 2 and is part of a grade 2/3 learning group made up of two classes.
All curriculum instruction for your child is provided by your child’s classroom teacher with the potential that the teacher of the grade 3 class may switch with your child’s teacher to provide some instruction in areas where they have particular skills and interests.
The two classrooms will be located close to each other and students will share recess and lunch times and may participate in outdoor learning activities together as part of the learning group.
Example, Grade 4
Your child is in grade 4 and is part of a grade 4 learning group made up of two classes.
All curriculum instruction for your child is provided by your child’s classroom teacher with the potential that the teacher of the other grade 4 class may switch with your child’s teacher to provide some instruction in areas where they have particular skills and interests.
The two classrooms will be located close to each other and students will share recess and lunch times and may participate in outdoor learning activities together as part of the learning group.
Middle schools that follow an elementary school model (one classroom with one teacher) will be organized like elementary schools.
Middle schools that follow a junior high model (students move between classes and take a range of subjects taught by different teachers) will be re-organized to limit students to learning groups of no more than 60 students and staff.
Elementary School Model
Your child is assigned to a grade 7/8 learning group which is made up of a grade 7 classroom and a grade 8 classroom.
Your child is in the grade 8 class, with 23 students. All core curriculum instruction for your child is provided in that classroom.
The grade 7 classroom is in an adjacent room and is part of the overall grade 7/8 learning group.
Together, those two classes have opportunities to collaborate on projects, use common areas like the gym or library, take breaks and go outside together.
Junior High Model
At the beginning of the school year, your child selects the classes they want to take from different teachers.
These selections may have been done last spring. They will be confirmed or adjusted based on current staffing and other circumstances.
Once course selections are finalized, students are assigned a learning group based on their grade level and the classes they selected.
They will remain with that learning group for their elective program choices as well as their core curriculum.
Secondary school students will continue to be organized in courses. School timetables will be organized to limit students to learning groups of no more than 120 students and staff.
Schools will analyze student enrolment and course selection to identify "natural learning groups," students who are taking the same core subjects and electives.
Secondary schools will be able to re-organize learning groups after each quarter or semester.
To accommodate as many students as safely as possible and as much choice as possible, your child's school introduces a quarter system, where students take two classes over a 10 week period (one term).
Your child is in grade 11 and is assigned to a grade 11 learning group. In the first quarter of the year, they complete Math 11 and English 11.
The next quarter, they are assigned to a new learning group and complete Biology 11 and Drama 11.
This process continues for the entire school year with new learning groups being formed every 10-week term based on student course requirements and elective choices.
Daily health checks
Parent and caregiver responsibilities
School administration responsibilities
Ensure staff and other adults know they are responsible for assessing themselves daily for symptoms prior to entering the school.
Clearly communicate with parents and caregivers that they are responsible for assessing their children daily before sending them to school.
Stay home when sick
The BCCDC guidelines for schools are firm. If a student, staff member or any other adult has any symptoms of a cold, influenza, COVID-19, or any other infectious respiratory disease, they must not enter the school.
Students, staff members and any other adult must stay home and self-isolate if they have:
- Tested positive for COVID-19, or have been tested and are waiting for their results
- Travelled outside Canada in the last 14 days
- Identified as a close contact of a confirmed case or outbreak
This includes the children of essential service workers.
Testing students before a return to school
It is recommended that only people with symptoms or people otherwise identified by a health professional should be tested for COVID-19. This includes children.
Testing can also result in false positive and false negatives for the following groups:
- Asymptomatic people
- Those who are very early on in the illness
- Those who may be incubating the disease
Someone in my household or bubble is sick
- Students or staff may still attend school if a member of their household has symptoms of illness, provided the student/staff is not sick
- It is expected the symptomatic household member is seeking assessment by a health-care provider
My child has allergies
- Students and staff who experience seasonal allergies, or other COVID-19-like symptom that are related to an existing condition, can continue to attend school when they are experiencing these symptoms as normal
- If you notice a sudden change in the severity or type of symptoms your child normally experiences, keep your child at home and seek assessment from a health care provider
Students and staff who become sick at school
If a student or staff member develops symptoms at school, protocols are in place.
- If a student or staff member develops symptoms at school, they will be given a non-medical mask and will be separated from their classmates or colleagues. Children will be supervised and cared for, if separated
- The student's parent or guardian will be contacted to discuss next steps, with a request to have their child picked up as soon as possible. Staff will be asked to go home as soon as possible
- Custodial staff will clean and disinfect the areas the person used
Confirmed case of COVID-19 in a learning group or at a school
If a student or staff member is confirmed to have COVID-19, and were potentially infectious while they were at school:
- Public health will perform an investigation to determine if there were any potential close contacts within the school
- Learning groups and staff who have interacted with the learning group may be asked to stay home while public health completes their investigation
If it is determined that there are close contacts within the school, public health will:
- Notify the school administrators and request information to assist with contact tracing
- Provide guidance on what steps should be taken
Public health may then:
- Recommend 14-day self-isolation if necessary (for confirmed close contacts)
- Recommend monitoring for symptoms if necessary
- Provide follow-up recommendations if necessary
- Schools will provide learning support to students required to self-quarantine
- Together, schools and public health officials will determine if any other actions are necessary
You will be notified by public health if your child has been in contact with a COVID-positive person. If that happens, your child is required to self-quarantine.
If there is a confirmed COVID-19 case in a school, public health contacts affected school community members directly. Regional health authorities also post school notifications on their websites, providing the date and type of notification (outbreak, cluster or exposure) for impacted schools.
There is no substitute for in-class instruction. It provides students with face-to-face teacher-led learning, peer engagement, supports social and emotional development and decreases feelings of isolation.
School also provides many students access to programs and services they can't get at home and is integral to their overall health.
School districts contacted all families in their school community to share their safety plan and confirmed if they planned to have their child attend classes in September or required another option.
The Ministry has also given school districts the flexibility to find options that work for families. This includes remote options for students within their districts, as well as the tools school districts need to increase their existing programs to meet demand.
Every school year, parents have options for their child's education.
Online and distributed learning
Both public and independent distributed learning schools offer distributed/online classes. Students in kindergarten to grade 7 must take a full course load at one school, while students in grades 8 to 12 may enrol in courses in a number of different distributed learning schools at one time.
There are 46 school districts with 53 public schools offering distributed learning courses and programs. Independent distributed learning schools also offer courses and programs.
Homeschooling is typically led by a family member who delivers an educational program to a child at home.
Note: Homeschoolers are not eligible to receive a British Columbia Dogwood Graduation Certificate.
Homebound education services allows students to continue their education program if they are absent from class during the school year because of injury, illness, surgery, pregnancy or mental health reasons.
To access homebound education services, parents and caregivers must contact their school.
Students with complex medical conditions
Parents of students who are immune-compromised or have underlying medical conditions are encouraged to consult with their health care provider to determine their level of risk regarding return to school.
If a medical professional determines that a student cannot attend school due to their health risks, the school district will work with the family to review alternative learning options for the student.
- Students who need to stay at home because they are immune-compromised will have an at-home learning plan and will be provided with an educational program by their school district
- This may include providing assistive technologies to help students learn remotely
Review COVID-19 and children with immune suppression information from the BCCDC.
Students with disabilities, diverse abilities
Students with disabilities, diverse abilities or those who require additional supports have access to and receive the same supports and services they had prior to the pandemic.
- The way supports are provided may look different, but all students will have access to a learning environment and the opportunity to have their learning needs assessed
Students who require additional supports are identified through a needs assessment. School districts and independent school authorities then develop continuity of learning plans for those students to ensure equity of access to learning.
- Continuity of learning plans align with the goals identified in a student's Individual Education Plan (IEP)
- They are developed in consultation with parents/caregivers and the specialists who typically support the student, like education assistants (EAs), non-enrolling teachers, speech language pathologists and occupational therapists
We continue to support international students coming to B.C. to study.
All students who have travelled outside of Canada are required to complete a self-quarantine under federal orders. This includes students who are attending school from abroad.
The Ministry fully respects the jurisdiction of First Nations and their right to make their own decisions on re-opening First Nations schools. Visit the First Nations Schools Association website for the latest updates.
For public schools, alternative methods of instructional delivery will be jointly determined by boards of education and First Nations for students from First Nations that remain closed and will not be sending students back to school at this time.
School districts and independent school authorities will engage with First Nations and Indigenous peoples as a part of their planning process for supports for Indigenous students.
- School boards and independent school authorities must also work with Métis Nation British Columbia for plans for Métis students attending public or independent schools
- Boards must identify Indigenous students whose educational outcomes may have been negatively impacted during in-class suspension, with support planned and prioritized
Instruction and supports
- A focus on mental health and well-being supports for students returning to school. School boards and independent authorities will regularly monitor and assess how changes to the delivery of education are impacting the mental and emotional wellbeing of students and staff
- Full-time instruction for students with disabilities/diverse abilities and students requiring additional support
- Options for students with underlying complex medical needs
- Alternative methods of delivery, jointly determined by boards of education and First Nations, for students from First Nations that remain closed and did not send students back in September
Curriculum, assessment and report cards
The return to full in-class instruction will include the following:
- Provincial curriculum for all students at all grade levels
- Regular report cards
- Regular assessments at the classroom and provincial level
School boards and independent authorities must ensure activities, assignments and assessments are accessible to all students and families, as appropriate for any in-class, remote or blended (hybrid) learning.
School districts must also meet the requirements of British Columbia’s Student Reporting Policy. The policy provides significant flexibility for schools and school districts on the content and format of report cards.
When in-class instruction is being supplemented with self-directed or remote learning, the focus will remain on ensuring students are making progress towards completing their graduation requirements.
Students who require more support in school will have full-time, in-class instruction available without any delays.
- Education assistants will continue to support students and teachers, both during in-class instruction and remote or online learning
- Children and youth in care will have priority access to technology, child care, in-class instruction and additional supports
Recess, lunch and break times
Students will remain in their learning group during recess, lunch and break times.
Students can socialize with a friend in a different learning group if they follow these rules.
- Outdoors, minimizing physical contact
- Indoors, maintain physical distance
Middle and secondary schools
- Consistently maintain physical distance in all environments
Sports, clubs and extracurricular activities
Under the updated health and safety guidelines, high-intensity physical activities need to:
- Maximize physical distancing
- Reduce physical contact
- Be held outdoors as much as possible
Shared equipment or items like weight machines and treadmills can be used only if they are cleaned between use, according to strict school sanitization guidelines.
Extracurricular activities including sports, arts and special interest clubs can only occur if:
- Physical distance can be maintained between members of different learning groups
- Reduced physical contact is practiced by those within the same learning group
Under the updated health and safety guidelines, students and staff in music classes should be spaced as far apart as possible. K to 12 staff and students in grades 4 to 12 are required to wear a mask while indoors. Masks can be temporarily removed while engaging in an educational activity that cannot be performed while wearing a mask, like playing a wind instrument, but must be worn while singing.
Shared equipment or items like musical instruments can be used only if they are cleaned between use, according to strict school sanitization guidelines.
Assemblies, concerts and gatherings
Gatherings or events at a school, including social gatherings of students and/or staff, must follow the PHO order – Gatherings and Events (PDF).
Small gatherings can only occur within a learning group.
- A gathering cannot exceed the maximum learning group size (60 or 120) plus the minimum number of people needed to meet the gathering's purpose
- For example, a parent-teacher conference would require one parent per student and a teacher
Assemblies, concerts and other large gatherings like a guest speaker should happen virtually.
Tournaments, competitions and festivals
All inter-school events including competitions, tournaments and festivals should not occur at this time.
Work placements and apprenticeships
School districts and independent school authorities will assess and determine if it is safe for students to remain on work placements and apprenticeships.
- For work placements that cannot continue in person, districts and schools will determine if alternate methods to continue learning or accumulate volunteer hours for work placements are possible
- Students are encouraged to talk to their teachers about work placements and apprenticeships
School meal programs
School districts with existing meal programs will continue to work with community partners to provide meal support to families in need, in alignment with current public health guidelines.
The Five Stage Framework outlines expectations for B.C. elementary, middle and secondary schools for learning during COVID-19.
Education communities have creative and compassionate ways of supporting students during the pandemic.
Contact your school
Have questions? Your school or district is the best place to get help.
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