The New Westminster Teachers’ Union is adding its voice to a call for health officials to improve COVID-19 safety measures in Fraser Health schools and to put teachers on the priority list for vaccinations.
Sarah Wethered, president of the NWTU, is one of 12 teachers’ union local presidents in the region to sign on to a statement calling on the Fraser Health Authority to improve health and safety standards in schools as students return to class in the wake of the two-week winter break.
“I was actually quite surprised that, unlike other jurisdictions, our winter break was not extended by two weeks,” Wethered said in an interview with the Record Friday. “That horse has left the barn now.”
COVID-19 cases have already cropped up in some Fraser Health schools this week, just days in to the new year – though not yet in New Westminster. (Fraser Health covers the territory from Burnaby to Boston Bar.)
“I haven’t seen any exposure notices yet, but I know that they have gone out in other locals, so I think it’s just a matter of time, unfortunately,” Wethered said.
Wethered said teachers are anxious about the return to school and all the unknowns around how people may have spent their winter break.
TEACHERS WANT MASK MANDATE IN SCHOOLS
Key among teachers’ requests to Fraser Health is a renewed call for a mask mandate in schools, in acknowledgement of the fact that physical distancing isn’t possible in most classes.
Wethered said she’d like to see masks mandated for students in middle and high schools, at the very least; in New Westminster, the majority of exposure notices issued thus far have involved NWSS or one of the district’s three middle schools.
Wethered said the arrival of the new U.K. COVID variant makes a mask mandate all the more important.
“This new variant is affecting children much more than what we had seen,” she said. “With this new variant of COVID, which they are saying is more of an aerosol, that mask is our last layer of protection.”
Continuing to improve the timeliness of exposure notices and involving teachers in contact tracing are two other suggestions that remain on teachers’ radar, Wethered said.
Teachers also want to see more clarity on the threshold for declaring an outbreak or “transmission” in a school. Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has repeatedly said there has been little in-school transmission despite growing numbers of COVID-19 exposures in schools.
The B.C. Centre for Disease Control’s year-end data modelling presentation stated that 384 schools in Fraser Health had seen exposure events, of which 49 had seen “potential in-school transmission events.”
But Wethered said teachers worry that transmission is more common than those numbers suggest. As an example, she cites a case from the fall in which two teachers at NWSS who taught in the same classroom both ended up with COVID-19 – but the two cases were never officially connected.
Teachers are also asking for reduced “density” in schools and classrooms – meaning fewer students in class at one time.
Wethered said teachers would like to see schools move to a system of part-time in-class instruction, with students attending on alternating days, such as what’s set out in the province’s plans for Stage 3 of its education restart plan. (Currently, schools are operating at Stage 2, which means full-time, in-class instruction for all students except at large high schools, such as NWSS, which incorporate some remote learning.)
COVID VACCINE: WHERE ARE TEACHERS IN PRIORITY LIST?
Whatever changes may or may not be made in classrooms, Wethered said teachers would like assurance of their place in the priority order for the COVID-19 vaccine.
“We have no idea when we’re getting a vaccine. We think it might be April,” she said, noting teachers are not currently mentioned in the province’s vaccine rollout schedule. “Even if we could say to members, ‘All teachers are getting their vaccine the month of April,’ then at least we would know.”
The teachers’ union presidents have a meeting scheduled with Fraser Health officials on Friday, Jan. 15 to discuss their concerns. For Wethered, a best-case outcome from that meeting would be to see a mask mandate – at least for schools in this region, if not provincewide.
“There are areas of the province with no COVID, but we’re hurting here in Fraser Health,” she said. “So if Fraser Health could issue a mask mandate just for Fraser Health, that would be a big step.”
Wethered said making changes to school protocols would help reassure not just teachers but also parents.
‘IT JUST HURTS MY HEART THAT PEOPLE WOULD THINK SCHOOL IS UNSAFE’
When she hears stories – on social media or via other local presidents – about parents who no longer feel safe sending their children to school, it hits hard.
“It just hurts my heart that people would think school is unsafe and wouldn’t want to send their children,” said Wethered, who’s a teacher-librarian at NWSS when not serving as union president. “I know I spent a long time trying to make my space at NWSS warm and welcoming, and a space where students wanted to be. To hear that parents wouldn’t want to send their kids to my space would just break my heart.”
She wants New Westminster families to know that everyone in the district is working hard to keep schools as safe as possible.
“The school district is doing the best that they can. I fully believe that the administrators are doing the best of a very bad situation,” she said. “Everyone in the schools, from top down – the administrators, the teachers, the support staff – we are all doing our best to ensure our schools are as safe as possible.”