The Safe Schools Coalition says schools should be moved online until community transmission of Omicron is brought under control—and it wants better ventilation, faster vaccinations, and several other safety measures in classrooms. Shutterstock

More action needed in schools as Omicron spreads, says advocacy group

The Safe Schools Coalition says along with safety measures announced last week, the province needs to act fast on several other fronts.

By Srushti Gangdev | January 4, 2022 |5:00 am

An advocacy group calling for more stringent COVID safety measures in schools says a one-week delay to the beginning of the next term is a good start—but far from enough to keep kids, families, and school staff safe amid the Omicron wave.

The Safe Schools Coalition, which is made up of teachers and family members in BC, says schools should be moved online until COVID positivity rates are below 5%.

It’s currently upwards of 20% in most parts of the Lower Mainland and elsewhere, including Burnaby—although availability of PCR tests has been severely limited in the province, even for people who have COVID symptoms.

The coalition says along with safety measures announced last week like daily health checks, suspended extracurricular sports, and virtual assemblies, the province’s education ministry needs to act fast on several other fronts.

Co-founder of the coalition and Burnaby district teacher Jen Heighton said the most important of those is ventilation upgrades, given the ease with which Omicron particularly travels through the air.

“It’s like not putting in speed limits for cars—you’re just letting everybody speed down the road with no speed limit, but you’re not dealing with the main mode of traffic accidents, which is speed,” Heighton told the Beacon.

“And this is why we have those protections in place, right? So they’re ignoring a key way of preventing illness.”

While Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside has touted the province’s work and investments in upgrading school ventilation systems, the Burnaby Teachers’ Association has said in the past that at least 200 classrooms in Burnaby alone are not connected to HVAC systems.

The Safe Schools Coalition is also continuing calls for measures that have been points of contention in schools since the pandemic began.

The group wants education staff to be prioritized for booster vaccines. Heighton pointed out that most teachers, who are under the age of 60, won’t receive their boosters until February—but she says at the speed with which Omicron is ripping through the population, many of them could become sick before then.

“So in the month of January, it’s going to spread like wildfire, and then a lot of people are going to be sick,” she said.

“And if teachers are sick, then there’s going to be staffing issues and school closures due to lack of staff.”

Moreover, Heighton said only a small percentage of children 5-11 have received their first vaccination dose so far—and there is still no vaccine available at all for children below the age of 5. The coalition is concerned that those younger children will spread the Omicron variant more easily amongst their school cohorts, but also at home.

Along with calling on the province to prioritize booster vaccines for all education staff and students, the group says BC’s classroom density is far too high to allow for proper physical distancing, with 20-30 students per class.

“The daily health check doesn’t address asymptomatic transmission, the fact that you can pass it on before you show symptoms. … And even Dr. Henry, she said that [you can pass on Omicron before you know you have it]. So that daily health check doesn’t work,” Heighton said.

“Staggered starts—you don’t catch it from passing somebody in the hallway, you’re more likely to catch it from sitting beside somebody in the classroom for several hours a day, someone who’s positive.”

It’s also asking the province to provide N95 masks or equivalent to all education staff and students, pointing to recommendations from the Public Health Agency of Canada that Canadians wear medical masks or respirators when possible instead of cloth masks.

Further, it wants rapid tests to be made available in all classrooms where there has been a positive COVID case confirmed, and for more information to be given about how the daily health check system will work.

And it’s also asking for financial supports for families whose parents aren’t deemed essential workers—and whose children will be kept home this week.

“One important tool missing in the current plan, the absence of which creates inequity, is support for families who are not deemed essential workers, and are thus required to keep their children home when the school year starts up again. Currently, they cannot access federal supports, as a formal lockdown has not been declared in British Columbia; the province should step in to fill this gap,” the coalition said in a press release.

“Support for these families is necessary, in order for them to be able to keep their children home and protected, without facing financial hardship, while work is done to make schools safer.”

If there are no provincial supports to be had, Heighton said the province should declare a three-week circuit breaker which would allow families to access that federal support.

Public health officials have repeatedly decried the option of shuttering K-12 schools, pointing to the mental health impacts on children of being isolated from their peers.

But Heighton said that argument ignores the mental health impacts children are facing anyway.

“They aren’t thinking about the mental health of children who are in a situation where we have a raging pandemic, but they’re not being given all the right protections. You know, it’d be different if the government was doing every single thing they could to try to keep schools safer. Then the mental health of children would probably be a lot better, if they knew that the adults were doing everything they say,” she said.

“They’re assuming that it’s 100% hunky dory, everything’s back to normal. But no, it’s not. Because you have this illness sphere in the background. … So the amount of not controlling the pandemic also contributes to mental health, is what I would say.”

The provincial government announced last week that K-12 schools would follow a phased approach to back-to-school due to growing concerns over Omicron. Children of essential workers and those with special needs are going back to classrooms as scheduled, while others will return on Jan 10.

Srushti Gangdev

Reporter at Burnaby Beacon

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