VANCOUVER — The B.C. Teachers’ Federation wants the province to reduce class sizes and make the use of masks mandatory wherever physical distancing isn’t possible as part of its back-to-school plan.
In a statement Wednesday, federation president Teri Mooring says it has been working with the province but some of its biggest concerns have not been met.
People have been told that physical distancing is the most effective measure to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and Mooring says teachers want to do their part.
However, she says the restart plan for kindergarten to Grade 12 has made no change to classroom density and it’s impossible to physical distance with 30 people in a classroom, even using learning groups.
The federation is calling for seven changes including smaller class sizes, dedicated funding for heating, ventilation and air conditioning equipment, and expanding mandatory mask use for children aged 10 and older to anywhere that physical distancing isn’t possible, which includes classrooms and laboratories.
The Education Ministry did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
School districts are to post final back-to-school details online by Aug. 26 but the ministry has provided some guidance on what is expected.
Learning groups were established on the advice of the provincial health officer to help prevent the transmission of COVID-19 and could be made up of a single class of students or multiple classes.
For elementary and middle school students, groups will be no larger than 60 people. Secondary school groups will be capped at 120.
Using 30 students who are 17 years old in a classroom for hours as an example, Mooring says it is impossible to maintain physical distancing.
“B.C. needs to reduce classroom density and mandate mask use whenever appropriate physical distancing isn’t possible. That includes our work spaces like classrooms, labs, and libraries — not just common spaces like hallways. B.C. teachers are workers, just like any other profession in this province, and they need to be safe.”
The union is particularly worried about the situation in B.C.’s largest and fastest growing districts that use hundreds of portables.
“Many B.C. schools also have outdated ventilation systems and thousands of students will be in classrooms without external windows,” Mooring says.
The union is also calling for a remote learning option, especially for children with medical problems or those with vulnerable family members, and accommodations for immunocompromized teachers.
Schools and worksites should be retrofitted with physical barriers for safety and the federation wants additional funding to cover twice-daily cleaning of high-touch surface areas in addition to regular cleanings.
On Monday, the ministry announced staff and students at middle and secondary schools will be required to wear masks on buses and in common areas like hallways when classes resume on Sept. 10.
The provincial government says masks will also be required whenever students and teachers are outside their learning group and cannot maintain an appropriate physical distance because of COVID-19.
Students who can’t wear masks for medical reasons will be exempt from the updated health and safety guidelines.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 19, 2020.
Amy Smart, The Canadian Press