As teachers wrap up their second day of back-to-school prep before students return to classrooms Thursday, the president of B.C. Teachers’ Federation had mixed feelings on how ready the education system is to welcome back hundreds of thousands of kids.
B.C.’s teachers returned for health and safety orientations on Tuesday, a process that Teri Mooring said “seems to be going fine.”
However, she said that some schools have not received their masks shipments yet. The province mandated masks for teachers, staff and middle and high school students in “high traffic areas” last month and pledged to provide two reusable ones per person. Masks are not required in classrooms.
Mooring said that so far, teachers have been supplied with disposable masks, but that another piece of personal protective equipment is lacking.
“The ministry secured 54,500 face shields,” Mooring told Black Press Media Wednesday (Sept. 8). “We knew it wasn’t enough for everyone… but the understanding was that any teacher or support staff worker who wants a face shield or a mask, they will be supplied.”
That doesn’t seem to be the case.
“In some situations, districts are even requiring prescriptions from a doctor for a face shield,” Mooring said. “When we know that there are tens of thousands available… it’s incomprehensible this is an issue right now.”
In a statement, the education ministry said they “are not aware” of any school districts requiring a prescription for face shields.
The province has provided $45.6 million to school districts for enhanced cleaning, hand-washing stations, re-usable masks and other supplies. It has also given $242 million in federal funding to school districts, distributed based on the number of students.
Physical markers to encourage physical distancing, directional arrows and staggered start times have largely been set up, although Mooring said “it does depend on the school district as to how well this has been done.”
Mooring is hoping to see more plexiglass barriers set up in places like counsellors offices, or even for on-call teachers, who are not part of the 60 to 120-student learning cohorts.
“It is warranted for classrooms to have some plexiglass barriers put up,” she said. “With 30 desks, you are not able to physically distance those desks by even a metre.”
Guidelines for physical distancing require two metres of space to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Mooring said the issue at the heart of the matter is that so much is being left up to school districts. The province’s 60 school districts released their education plans at the end of August. Many, like Surrey and Langley, do not have fully online options easily accessible to most students.
“That’s setting up a lot of inequities,” she said. The teachers’ union is hearing from parents who aren’t able to access online learning, or who only have that option for a short period of time.
As cases continue to spike in B.C., with 429 new COVID-19 cases identified over the Labour Day long weekend, the lack of online learning has parents worried.
“The fact that there isn’t more provincial guidance on this issue is troubling.”
But Mooring said that the parents who feel able to reach out to the BCTF and their school districts don’t worry as much as the ones she’s not hearing from.
“If I’m looking at a family that is perhaps housing and food insecure, that’s grappling with medical issues… that’s a family that’s not able to, necessarily, do that level of advocacy that the minister [of education] is requiring them to do in order to access this option.”
Teachers began to see inequities pop up when schools first went remote due to COVID-19 in the springs. Now, Mooring said this school year, with limited options for worried parents to get their kids an education in a way they’re comfortable with, could worsen those issues.
“We’re a public education system; we’re supposed to be levelling out those inequities, we’re not supposed to be exacerbating them. It’s pretty shocking that… more hasn’t been done to ensure all parents are treated fairly.”
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