VICTORIA -- With the start of the school year just weeks away, a controversy about British Columbia’s return to classrooms is heating up.

An online petition that started over the weekend already has thousands of signatures demanding that the province make in-classroom learning voluntary in the fall.

Edmond Luk started the petition to send a message to the government that families want options for flexible learning like they had in the spring.

“It has worked for many families,” he said. “Obviously what we’re saying is to have the option – keep this optional.”

On Tuesday, B.C. provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said she understands parents’ anxiety about the full return to school, but insists the province's plan is safe.

She also said there are significant risks to students not returning to the classroom.

“School is such an important environment for our children and it's something that we need to find a way to make happen in a way that supports them," Henry said. "We know that some children will fall behind and will never catch up and this will affect them for the rest of their lives.”

The government announced its return to school plan last week. The plan involves students from kindergarten through Grade 12 all returning to the classroom on Sept. 8.

The students will be divided into learning groups of 60 people for elementary and middle school, and 120 people, including teachers and students, for high schools.

The petition also questions why masks are not mandatory in B.C. schools.

Alberta announced Tuesday that masks will be mandatory for most staff and students in Grade 4 through Grade 12.

Henry said B.C. will not be doing the same in its schools.

“We have no intention for making mandatory masks, and I don’t believe there’s evidence to support mask wearing by children in the classrooms,” she said

The Ministry of Education says those families looking for options other than in-classroom learning will be allowed to do home-schooling or the online distributed learning program that existed prior to the pandemic.

The government maintains, however, that in-classroom learning will be the primary model encouraged for most students.