With the Omicron variant quickly spreading throughout the province, improved COVID-19 safety measures are becoming more important. According to a BCTF update to Local Presidents, the Education Ministry’s COVID-19 Steering Committee met with the BCTF right before Christmas and reported that:
Omicron is more transmissible than earlier variants of COVID-19.
Omicron in transmitted in the same way as other variants (see below for how COVID-19 spreads).
Much transmission continues to be in unstructured social interactions (such as in homes).
In response to this update, the BCTF made several requests to help ensure that schools are safe during this phase of the pandemic, which included the following:
N95 masks should be provided at schools (the BCTF notes that quality and fit are more important now, especially given the recent recommendations of Dr. Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, on the need for higher quality masks in workplaces – see next page for details on her recent comments).
Schools should be supported in enforcement of mask-wearing. Mask-wearing is more important now.
Schools and classrooms should be provided with mitigation measures in buildings without adequate filters (such as portable HEPA filters in every classroom or other ways to improve ventilation).
Students and staff should be provided access to rapid testing.
Keeping vaccination clinics open and speeding up booster shots should be prioritized (additional personal to make this happen should be provided). Note: This is especially important in Northern BC.
How COVID-19 Spreads: COVID-19 Is Airborne
According to the government of Canada, “The virus that causes COVID-19 spreads from an infected person to others through respiratory droplets and aerosols [smaller droplets] when an infected person breathes, coughs, sneezes, sings, shouts, or talks. The droplets vary in size, from large droplets that fall to the ground rapidly (within seconds or minutes) near the infected person, to smaller droplets, sometimes called aerosols, which linger in the air, especially in indoor spaces. The relative infectiousness of droplets of different sizes is not clear. Infectious droplets or aerosols may come into direct contact with the mucous membranes of another person’s nose, mouth or eyes, or they may be inhaled into their nose, mouth, airways and lungs. The virus may also spread when a person touches another person (i.e., a handshake) or a surface or an object (also referred to as a fomite) that has the virus on it, and then touches their mouth, nose or eyes with unwashed hands” (Government of Canada, https://bit.ly/3enBUMi, last updated Dec. 14, 2021).
Employers Should Provide Employees with a Safe Workplace During COVID-19
Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, is calling for employers to provide their employees with “the best masks possible that you can get your hands on, making sure that ventilation is improved in those workplaces, and making sure that [employees] get access to vaccines” (CBC, Dec. 21, 2021). Dr. Tam recommends N95-type respirators, which are a better a fit for people’s faces.
Dr. Tam: Cloth Masks Won’t Protect from Omicron
Dr. Tam is also warning people that cloth masks won’t protect you from Omicron, the fast-spreading variant of COVID-19. The CBC quotes Dr. Tam as saying that “you cannot have a single-layered cloth mask”. She also says that “the medical masks are better at filtering viruses.” Other health officials are warning people to replace their masks to avoid damage to the material that can weaken mask effectiveness.
The PRDTU Continues to Request N95-Type Masks for School Workers
The PRDTU was an early advocate for the provision of N95-type masks for teachers and other school district employees. We pushed early in the pandemic for the BCTF to request this level of protection for all members. The PRDTU successfully helped the BCTF develop its current policy to call for a universal and precautionary approach to protection and safety at work, including by calling on the government to provide teachers with personal protective equipment – such as N95-type masks. The PRDTU and the BCTF also continue to call for improved ventilation, which is now recognized as critical to workplace protection from COVID-19.
N95-Type Masks + Improved Ventilation + Immediate Access to Boosters
For teachers to be safe in schools, we need immediate access to booster shots, improved ventilation in schools, and to be provided with N95-type masks at work. Schools must be safe to remain open, for both students and staff alike. As the pandemic changes, so too must the government’s response to it.
Last November PRDTU members voted in favour of a mask mandate in all SD52 classrooms at a General Meeting attended by nearly 50 teachers. We reaffirmed this at our most recent General Meeting, calling on masks for students in K to Grade 3 classrooms.
Last November’s motion for Safe Schools was followed up by a series of meetings with SD52 management on safety improvements. The PRDTU also held a Road Rally for Safe Schools, which drew media attention to teachers’ calls for improvements to school safety in our community. Our local media campaign included a series of public service advertisements and other outreach (see below for the poster we distributed for this).
The PRDTU was an early leader within the BCTF on calls for universal measures to protect staff and student safety, including by calling for early access to vaccines for teachers if required for our safety at work. We were also an early advocate for masks in schools. Our local’s motion to the BCTF, which passed at the AGM, articulates the BCTF’s current policy on pandemic safety. This policy places member safety as a paramount priority for the BCTF. This policy also bases BCTF policy on precautionary and universal principles.
Our Calls to Action Helped Lead to Mask Mandates for All Schools
At last week’s PRDTU General Meeting we reaffirmed our local union’s position on masks for all students and staff in SD52 schools. As you likely know from widespread media coverage, this part of our campaign for safer schools has met its objective. The provincial government has agreed with the BCTF and PRDTU on making masks a requirement for all ages. This means that masks, with some exceptions, are now mandated for all staff, visitors, and students in schools throughout the province.
The PRDTU’s commitment to your safety is realized in these new measures. While we had hoped for government action sooner, as COVID-19 changes so too must our response to it. At least the government remains committed to following the science on protecting people during this pandemic.
With a safe and effective vaccine available for most adults and youth over 12, and with the fast-spreading Delta variant, protecting younger students by requiring masks in schools puts their safety first. It also helps reduce the spread and protects teachers – and our families at home and beyond.
The PRDTU is committed to protecting your safety at work. We have been a leader on this throughout COVID-19 and will continue to advocate for your safety. As teaching professionals, we know that our students deserve safe schools. We will also continue to advocate for safer schools for all students and staff.
As the population reaches full vaccination, we are all hopeful that our schools will return to the pre-COVID normal when we could see each other’s faces and go to school without wearing a mask. Thankfully, the science behind vaccination has provided us with an effective and safe way out of this pandemic together.
Looking Back: PRDTU Advocacy for Safe Schools
The following motion passed at the September 28, 2021 General Meeting:
Moved that the PRDTU request to the Board of education to extend the mask mandate to K to 3.
The following motion passed at the December 15, 2020 General Meeting of the PRDTU. This motion was moved at the BCTF Annual General Meeting by the PRDTU and passed. It now reflects BCTF policy on COVID-19 and any future public health emergency.
That, in the event of a public health emergency that puts members’ health and safety in jeopardy, such as a pandemic, Federation policy shall be guided by the following strategies and principles:
1) members’ health and safety matters, meaning that members’ health, safety, and lives should be paramount considerations when guiding the Federation’s response to such an emergency, equal to the health, safety, and lives of students, families, other school staff, and Federation staff;
2) protective measures for members shall be demanded as necessary, including the immediate provision of personal protective equipment, early access to vaccines, exposure control or health and safety measures for members, and/or whatever else is needed; and
3) precautionary and universal protections shall be demanded as necessary.
In addition to passing the above policy motion, the PRDTU also held a series of public outreach events to promote safe school policies for SD52 students and staff.
The following motion passed at a General Meeting on November 21, 2020.
That the PRDTU request that the School District immediately adopt the following measures:
require that staff, students, and the public wear a mask when in schools or classroom spaces when physical distancing is not possible, with exceptions provided for medical reasons, individual student needs, and when eating or drinking on breaks or lunches;
inform classroom teachers of known increased exposure risks, including if there is known instance of a positive COVID-19 test result in a classroom or cohort;
reduce density in all classrooms to a maximum of 15 students;
educate families on the importance of self-isolation and staying at home if you have possible COVID-19 symptoms or waiting for COVID-19 test results;
transparent monitoring of air filtration and ventilation systems in all schools and classrooms;
provide staff with barriers and other control measures without further delay, and
continue with all other existing exposure control measures, including enhanced cleaning and sanitization, and the provision of hand sanitizing stations and handwashing sinks.
The PRDTU is committed to supporting and advancing truth and reconciliation with Indigenous communities. We all have a role to play in restoring integrity to the relationship between public education and Aboriginal peoples. As teaching professionals, the PRDTU recognizes the role that our profession must play in advancing truth and reconciliation – in every SD52 classroom and school.
The news of unmarked children’s graves in First Nations communities, located at former Indian Residential School sites throughout the country, is a stark reminder of the need for truth and reconciliation. As the Honourable Justice Murray Sinclair, Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said:
“Education got us into this mess and education will get us out of it.”
We can help get out of “this mess” by working with First Nations and other Aboriginal peoples and communities, educating all students on the tragic and unjust legacy of the Indian Residential School system, celebrating the many accomplishments of First Nations and other Aboriginal peoples, promoting Sm’algyax in our schools, centring the curriculum on the cultural knowledge of the Ts’msyen and other First Nations of the North Coast, and by providing quality education for all students.
The BCTF has resources for teachers to support truth and reconciliation in our classrooms, schools, and communities. Teachers can also visit the following sources for classroom resources:
The PRDTU welcomes the recent decisions made by the SD52 Board of Trustees to improve access to meetings and increase accountability of school district management. Three decisions made by the Board of Trustees at the September 14, 2021 meeting will improve public access and increase accountability and oversight, which will help the Board of Trustees in good governance of the School District. These decisions were:
To hire an accounting firm to conduct a forensic audit of school district finances and oversight
To continue to provide online access for the public to remotely participate in board meetings, even after COVID-19 measures are no longer necessary
To record board meetings and to make these available to the public for viewing in the future
Teachers support public schools that work for the benefit of students, families, and the community. Having strong and effective oversight of school district management, and widespread participation in public school governance, helps us all work together for our schools and students.
Last year, senior management of SD52 made statements at a public board meeting that clearly indicated that the cuts to instructional staffing would be fewer than what was carried out. Had that school board meeting been recorded and publicly available, the record would make this clear. Greater accountability for management builds trust in our schools and improves governance.
There should be no cuts to teachers or other instructional staff when there are overcapacity classes in our schools. Hopefully the forensic audit will investigate the actual level of spending on non-instructional spending, including on management and administration. The funds should stay as close to the students as possible.
DI (District Itinerant) teachers are like all other teachers with continuing, full-time employment in School District 52. Their role is to plan and implement student learning programs, support students through instruction, assess and evaluate student progress, report student progress through both formal and informal means, and contribute to the overall health of the school community.
Why was the DI teacher position established?
SD52 established the District Itinerant (DI) teacher position to solve three problems:
Recruit and retain certified teachers to SD52.
End teacher shortages – so all leaves are covered when a teacher is absent.
Provide student support – such as helping students with special needs for when a class is over capacity.
Before the DI teacher position was established, SD52 struggled to recruit and retain new teachers. The DI teacher position provided SD52 with a competitive edge when attracting teacher talent to our community. Prior to the DI teacher position, shortages were a common problem. Teacher leaves (due to sick leave or other reasons) were often uncovered.
That often meant pulling special education teachers, teacher librarians, or teacher counselors from other programs to ensure that a classroom had a teacher. This undermined student learning services. All too often, uncertified teachers were required or special education supports were cancelled. Student learning was frequently impacted by these teacher shortages. The layoff of 8% of teachers in SD52 will make it harder to retain teachers, will result in shortages, and will undermine student learning.
What do DI teachers do in our schools and classrooms?
Like all teachers, DI teachers support student learning. DI teachers do this by:
Providing learning supports for classes that are over-capacity (i.e. for classes that exceed the limits for total students or of class-composition – based on the ratio of students with special needs in a given class).
Covering for both short-term and long-term leaves of other teachers.
Providing at-home learning supports for students who need them (during COVID-19).
DI teachers are generally placed in a “home school” where the bulk of their work is done. This builds community and establishes relationships. It provides more continuity for students and improves communication between teachers and other educators. To provide flexibility, DI teachers can be assigned to any school, ensuring greater coverage based on need.
A major role for DI teachers is covering for “remedy”. Remedy provides extra learning supports when a class is overcapacity. This can be in the form of helping students through one on one and small group instruction, co-teaching in a class that’s over capacity, and providing additional time to prepare lessons and support students. Remedy must be provided according to the Collective Agreement. The DI teacher position ensures that remedy is provided. It also increases continuity by making it more likely for the same teacher to support students across the school year.
What benefits do DI teachers provide for SD52?
Increase retention of teachers, lowering recruitment costs and increasing stability for schools and classrooms.
Provide flexibility for difficult-to-fill positions – throughout the school year and at all worksites and schools.
Provide continuity for students when DI teachers are providing in-class supports for students or when DI teachers are providing on call coverage.
Ensure that new teachers can stay in Prince Rupert and build roots in the community.