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'Stressed out' teachers want mask mandate in Fraser Health schools

New West teachers' union president says meeting with Fraser Health medical health officer gave teachers a chance to renew their call for better COVID-19 safety protocols in schools
Mandatory masks in classrooms are the number 1 ask of B.C. teachers' union local presidents in Fraser Health, says New West local president Sarah Wethered.

Teachers’ union presidents in the Fraser Health region are doubling down on their request for a mask mandate in local schools.

That’s the word from Sarah Wethered, president of the New Westminster Teachers’ Union, after she and fellow union local presidents met with Dr. Ariella Zbar, medical health officer for Fraser Health, on Jan. 18.

The B.C. Teachers’ Federation has been lobbying for new protocols to help make the region’s schools safer in the face of COVID-19. Union local presidents in Fraser Health – the region that stretches from Burnaby to Boston Bar, including New Westminster – have been leading the charge because of high case numbers and high numbers of school exposures in the region.

Wethered said teachers didn’t come out of the meeting with any promises of immediate changes in policy, but she characterized the meeting with Zbar as “better than OK.”

She was pleased Zbar wanted to know what’s top of mind for teachers right now – a question Wethered has no trouble answering.

“Teachers are stressed. This new variant is increasing pressure on us. We have low job satisfaction right now, and we’re stressed out,” she said.

Wethered said the pandemic is taking a toll on teachers on many fronts, including the havoc it’s causing with trying to find teachers on call. Many on-call teachers are older or retired, she noted, and many of them have decided not to work right now because they’re concerned for their own health.

That means classroom teachers are pulled off their prep time to cover for absent colleagues, and non-classroom teachers – such as counsellors, teacher-librarians, resource teachers – are also standing in when needed.

Teachers are anticipating some changes soon to the B.C. Centre for Disease Control’s guidelines for schools, which they have been told are being reviewed.

“I think as we get more and more into the pandemic, some of them do need a review, especially with the new variants that are coming out that are even more aerosolized,” Wethered said.



Among the changes teachers would like to see are including them more closely in contact tracing – something Wethered noted was acknowledged by Zbar.

“She did acknowledge that with contact tracing, they need to look at the children’s age when they’re asking them who they spoke to, who they were in close contact with,” Wethered said, noting it’s often the classroom teacher who will have the best answers to those questions.

If there was one change Wethered would like to see right away, it’s the long-called-for mask mandate in classrooms.

“Teachers would love to make that a rule, but they’re not allowed,” Wethered said. “We can encourage, but we can’t say, ‘Thou shalt wear a mask.’”

Other changes the teachers’ union has pushed for – including reduced density in classrooms – would be more complex to implement, Wethered noted, but a mask mandate is simple.

“We could do it this afternoon,” she said.

She said she’s proud of New Westminster teachers for all the hard work they’re doing to keep a sense of normalcy for students this year and to continue to offer the best quality education they can.

“I totally agree that children need to be in school. That’s my personal opinion,” she said. “I believe it’s good for their well-being; it’s good to have that normalcy, that routine of going to school. I just want it to be safer, with a mask mandate.”

Teachers’ union presidents will meet with Zbar again after the new BCCDC guidelines are released. Wethered anticipates that meeting will happen sometime in February.

Follow Julie MacLellan on Twitter @juliemaclellan.
Email Julie, [email protected].