The BC Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) is advocating for a broad, province-wide mask mandate to start the school year, along with ventilation improvements and cleaning of all high-touch surfaces during the school day.
With classes set to resume in two weeks, the BCTF demands are intended to address anxieties beginning to surface about the fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic precipitated by the Delta variant influence.
“We are hearing from more concerned families than ever before in this pandemic. They’re worried that their children who are too young to be vaccinated might be going back to school without enough protections in place,” said BCTF president Teri Mooring last week.
“Things are most definitely not normal right now, so we can’t carry on as if they were.”
Mooring says the BCTF supports a regional approach to adjusting school safety measures as required over the school year, emphasizing that decisions must be informed by timely, transparent regional data and involve local stakeholders from the education and public health sectors.
Factors such as community rates of vaccination and transmission must be considered, as public health continues to assert that school transmission reflects what is happening in the larger community.
“Given what we know about the highly contagious Delta variant, we need to err on the side of caution and return to schools with everyone wearing masks. Vaccinations are integral to safer schools, but can’t be our only line of defence,” said Mooring.
“We know for certain that none of the students 11 years old or younger will be vaccinated, and the vaccination rate for eligible youth still isn’t as high as we would all hope to see.”
When school classes broke for summer vacation in June, the expectation was a return closer to normalcy in the fall, with students not being restricted to cohorts and school extra-curricular activities would resume while questions about mask-wearing would be addressed prior to the start of school in September.
The Ministry of Education’s response so far is to reiterate ongoing plans for the coming school year are being worked on in cooperation with public health experts and the provincial K-12 steering committee.
“The steering committee continues to meet to discuss the safety guidelines, in consultation with the BC Centre for Disease Control, to ensure we are prepared for September’s return to school,” stated the ministry in an email response to a Black Press request for comment on the BCTF’s recommendations.
“On June 17, 2021, we announced $43.6 million to support a safe return to school for students and staff for investments including enhanced cleaning measures, and to support First Nations and Metis students, mental health services, learning impacts to students as well as rapid response teams.”
The BCTF is also urging the province to implement the following measures ahead of the new school year:
• School-based clinics to allow easy access to vaccinations for ages eligible students.
• Funding for ventilation system upgrades to meet the minimum standards of MERV 13 filters, and HEPA filters in workspaces where MERV 13 filters are not possible.
• N95 and/or medical-grade masks available for all students and staff upon request.
• Comprehensive COVID-19 testing strategy that includes asymptomatic testing.
• Designated time for health and safety training at all schools and worksites.
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