Officials in B.C. have confirmed students from kindergarten to Grade 12 will return to full-time, in-person classes this September, with staff and students in Grade 4 and up required to wear a mask in indoor spaces.
Younger students will be encouraged to wear masks, according to the back-to-school plan laid out on Tuesday.
"We are committed to safe, in-class learning, not just for the educational growth of our students but for their social and emotional well-being," B.C. Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside said during a news conference.
The province confirmed there is no mandate for teachers, staff and eligible students to be vaccinated against COVID-19 in order to return to the classroom. Officials said they did not think a requirement was necessary, citing vaccination rates.
"[A mandate is] proportional to the risk. We know that schools are a safe setting, that the risk of transmission in the school settings is actually very low, even in the absence of vaccines last year," said Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry.
Many of the safety measures in the safety plan have been carried over from last year, including enhanced cleaning and health and safety checklists.
Other measures are new this year. For example, the province said health authorities will be able to introduce additional regional measures, specific to individual schools or school districts, if community transmission rates are higher in that area.
Officials have also removed learning groups and cohorts. Whiteside said the ministry is "still working" with the B.C. Centre for Disease Control to decide how families will be notified if staff or students are exposed to the virus.
"We will certainly have confirmation of what people can expect in that regard in advance of the start of school," the minister said.
Advocates on Tuesday said they were still concerned to see classes returning without a mask mandate that includes younger children and covers outdoor spaces like playgrounds.
"We are incredibly disappointed that we're going back with what seems to be less measures with the delta variant going strong," said Annie Ohana, who teaches at L.A. Matheson Secondary School and works with the Safe Schools Coalition advocacy group.
Ventilation in classrooms has also been a focus. The province said Tuesday it has spent $87.5 million to improve ventilation, including $77.5 million in HVAC upgrades or replacements, but Ohana said staff haven't seen any data further breaking down which schools received improvements.
"Communication is a huge issue and with less than two weeks to go before school begins, talk about a lack of timing for staff and parents to really prepare themselves," she said.
Whiteside said officials believe classes can resume safely because school staff were prioritized for vaccines in the spring and children aged 12 and older are eligible.
"We are not in the same situation as we were heading into last September because we now have safe and effective vaccines," she said. "We have very high uptake in respect to vaccines and we know the best place for children to be learning is in schools."
All of the provincial guidelines also apply to independent schools.
Henry said youth aged 12 to 17 will have "easy access" to vaccination heading into the school year, and there will be on-campus clinics for post-secondary students.
Vaccine cards apply to campus housing
Masks will again be mandatory for public indoor spaces across B.C. as of Wednesday.
On Monday, the province announced residents will need a vaccine card to get into restaurants, clubs, ticketed sporting events and organized events like weddings this fall.
Starting Sept. 13, people will have to show proof of having had a single dose of a vaccine to access those activities. After Oct. 24, they will need to have been fully vaccinated for at least seven days.
The measures apply to post-secondary students living on campus as of Sept. 7. Henry said colleges and universities have the option of requiring faculty and staff to be immunized.
Premier John Horgan said Monday the card will give people "the confidence" to attend discretionary activities and businesses, especially as the province is unlikely to move into the last step of its restart plan on Sept. 7.
There were 16 more COVID-related deaths over a 72-hour period ending Monday, along with 1,711 new cases, spurred by the highly contagious delta variant.
Henry told a news conference Monday nearly 90 per cent of the province's COVID-19 cases in the past month have been among unvaccinated people. Most of the infections have been diagnosed in those aged 20 to 40.
About 75 per cent of B.C. residents are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, but Henry said that number needs to be higher as the delta variant drives up case counts, putting those who are unvaccinated at greater risk of contracting the virus.