On the heels of a series of new outbreaks and exposures announced in schools province-wide, the B.C. teachers’ union has asked the government to increase COVID protection measures in schools.
In a letter sent to staff Monday (Jan. 4), B.C. Teachers’ Federation president Teri Mooring said she had met with newly appointed Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside over the winter break to brief her on teachers’ concerns.
“We spoke about the need for more transparent data on COVID-19 in schools, the imperative to improve prevention measures like mask wearing and physical distancing,” Mooring wrote.
“I also raised concerns about the problems with contact tracing and the inconsistent communications coming out from health officials.”
Although public health officials have repeatedly said that the risk of in-school transmission is low, Mooring said that the current strategy doesn’t allow teachers, support staff or parents to assess their own personal risk and safety levels.
“Withholding data has also created a sense of mistrust and a great deal of online speculation that doesn’t help keep anyone safe,” she said. Mooring called for comprehensive public reporting that could include the current number of COVID cases among staff, students and teachers, the number of classes that have had to self-isolate and a list of school closures, the number of in-school transmissions and “clear definitions and rationale for using terms like exposure, cluster, outbreak, and closure.”
The province does not currently release data on the number of school students who have been infected with the virus. However, according to B.C. Centre for Disease Control data, 2,228 children under the age of 10 and 4,918 children and teens aged 10 to 19 have contracted COVID so far. There have been a total of 54,201 cases of COVID-19 in B.C. as of Monday afternoon.
In a 12-page brief prepared for Whiteside, the BCTF brought forward 30 recommendations largely stemming from transparency issues, the need for more protective measures and how to make sure that no students are left behind.
The union asked the province to review the K–12 Restart Plan, introduced this summer, and bring in enhanced health and safety measures upon return from winter and spring breaks.
The BCTF again brought up the issue of masks, which are mandatory only for middle and high school students in “high traffic areas.”
“Proper physical distancing in many classrooms is impossible due to the limitations of space,” the union stated, adding that it recommends “an expanded expectation of mask-wearing in education worksites,” especially after return from breaks.
“Fundamental measures for protection used in other sectors, such as physical distancing, physical barriers such as plexiglass, and masks to name a few, are not being implemented consistently in the K–12 sector,” the briefing to the education minister stated.
In her letter to staff, Mooring emphasized that a “one size fits all” approach is not working in B.C. Multiple schools in the province, in the Lower Mainland as well as the Okanagan, have been forced to shut down due to staffing issues caused by rampant transmission.
While currently, there are no active school exposures listed on health authority websites, more than a dozen schools had students isolating over winter break. These schools include Osoyoos Secondary School and Penticton Secondary School in the Okanagan, two schools in Terrace in northern B.C. and most recently the news that nearly 50 cases of COVID were reported between five classes at Earl Marriott Secondary in Surrey.
“A massive outbreak like this should be the lesson that they finally take seriously,” Mooring wrote of the Surrey school outbreak.
In the briefing for the education minister, the BCTF called for reducing classroom density, especially in harder hit regions.
The BCTF also called for the suspension of the foundations skills assessments and the graduation numeracy and literacy Assessments. The union said that students who were unable to learn in the classroom during the pandemic should be provided with “full-time remote learning by teachers assigned solely to remote learning.” Those students, the union added, should remain enrolled at their current schools.
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