The BCTF wants the province to move K-12 schools online for the first week of the new year as Omicron cases spike. Shutterstock

K-12 schools should go online for first week of new year amid Omicron concerns, says BC Teachers Federation

BCTF president Teri Mooring told the Beacon that the Omicron variant of COVID-19 requires new safety measures, and schools need time to implement them before students are back in classrooms.

By Srushti Gangdev | December 29, 2021 |5:00 am

The BC Teachers Federation is calling on the provincial government to move the first week of classes online for K-12 schools in the new year.

BCTF president Teri Mooring told the Beacon that the Omicron variant of COVID-19 requires new safety measures, and schools need time to implement them before students are back in classrooms.

Mooring said she anticipates a spike in school-related cases when classrooms reopen—pointing out that provincial health officer Dr Bonnie Henry has said many times that transmission in schools is a reflection of transmission in the community.

“What we’re seeing right now in communities is Omicron is going through them, quite rapidly in some cases. And so the concern is the same will happen in schools,” Mooring said.

“And there won’t be enough replacement staff, teachers teaching on call, or EA replacements to fill the need. Because we do anticipate that there will be high levels of people getting infected or having symptoms.”

The BCTF is concerned that a spike in cases in teachers and staff will result in the “functional closure” of schools that will not have enough staff to keep them running.

Already, it’s hearing anecdotal reports of teachers who have gotten sick over Christmas break, concurrent with an almost vertical spike in COVID cases in the community as Omicron became the dominant variant in BC.

“And what’s making it all worse is that teacher and education assistant shortage. We have a shortage basically across the entire province, worse in some places than others. And we’re really concerned that there just won’t be enough staff to cover the absenteeism,” Mooring said.

The Ministry of Education told Burnaby Beacon in an emailed statement that it is planning for a return to classrooms in January.

“Ministry staff are working closely with public health over the holidays to prepare specific direction for schools in advance of students and staff returning to schools in January. The provincial K-12 Steering Committee, which includes the BCTF, met last week and [Monday] and is scheduled to meet again [Wednesday] with a goal to finalize enhanced safety measures for schools,” the ministry said.

“The information is expected to be distributed to school districts, independent school authorities and the public this week, ahead of the return to the classroom.”

When students do return, the BCTF is asking that those measures include a supply of N95 masks for all staff and students, which experts have said is more effective against Omicron, more details on a rapid testing program in schools, and improved ventilation in schools—something they’ve been calling for for many months.

“About half of the districts in the province don’t have adequate ventilation systems according to the BCCDC guidelines,” Mooring said.

“And so we’d also like to see some stopgap measures put in place there, including HEPA filters.”

As we have previously reported, Burnaby Teachers Association president Daniel Tétrault has raised concerns about ventilation upgrades in Burnaby schools this year as well.

In a press conference in August ahead of the beginning of the school year, education minister Jennifer Whiteside touted the province’s work in improving school ventilation systems—but Tétrault told the Beacon he found those comments misleading.

“It made it seem like districts had already made all the ventilation improvements required. We know that districts like Burnaby are doing a full inventory of classrooms and ventilation improvements needed. But from what I’ve been seeing, Burnaby has over 200 classrooms that are not connected to air ventilation systems,” he said in August.

“So last year, for example, they relied on opening doors and windows. And to improve these over 200 classrooms, Burnaby would need capital funding for this from the provincial government.”

The BCTF also wants this week’s announcement on enhanced safety measures to allow school administrators to be able to inform families when there’s been a COVID exposure. Mooring said that with a lack of effective contact tracing, that information will be even more important for families.

But regardless of what the province decides in the way of enhanced measures, Mooring said schools will need time to implement them.

“As Dr. Henry [has] said, we’re in a different pandemic. And so we think that we need to really take a different approach,” she said.

“All along, we have not been advocating for schools to go online. But we are now because we just see the need for this to happen. It’s just too unpredictable right now.”

Srushti Gangdev

Reporter at Burnaby Beacon

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