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  • Tracy Sherlock

B.C. teachers go to labour board, saying schools are unsafe

BCTF president Teri Mooring says teachers are "raising the alarm" about unsafe conditions in B.C. schools. (Photo: BCTF.)

Teachers in B.C. have applied to the Labour Relations Board, saying schools are unsafe.

“Teachers report that they are feeling pressured to work in unsafe conditions and are demanding significant changes to ensure they and their students are protected,” the LRB application states.

Among their concerns are an “extremely high level of confusion” about health and safety measures, as well as inadequate protections against covid-19 and a lack of oversight and enforcement by the province.

Some districts are not enforcing mask wearing, even in high-traffic areas like hallways or on busses, and they are rationing masks and face shields, Mooring said.

It’s only a matter of time before there is covid-19 transmission in schools, BCTF president Teri Mooring said at a news conference.

“We’re trying to prevent that,” Mooring said. “Contact tracing happens after the fact. We are trying to prevent the transmission of the virus.”

Teachers’ safety concerns “may result in widespread refusals of unsafe work,” the application says.

Mooring wouldn’t say if teachers are prepared to walk off the job.

“What we’re trying to do is prevent labour unrest,” Mooring said. “Twenty-five teachers have been at the table for months, bringing teachers’ concerns forward and we have not been able to affect the changes necessary to keep students and teachers safe.”

The province has provided $45.6 million and the federal government will provide up to $242.4 million for in-school safety.

The Ministry of Education said it could not comment on matters before the Labour Relations Board.

"Schools are operating under guidelines that were established with the provincial health office. Safe learning and work conditions are the top priority of our government," the ministry said in a statement. "From the onset of the pandemic, we have been working closely and collaborating with all K-12 education partners, including teachers on finding creating solutions to meet the needs of students and families in B.C. And that collaboration will continue as we go forward."

About 85 per cent of students returned to in-class learning in B.C.’s public schools, the Ministry of Education said in a news release. But that number varies widely around the province, with about one-quarter choosing an online option in Vancouver and about 10 per cent choosing that option in Surrey. In Richmond, where there is a high percentage of Asian students, as many as 35 per cent of students requested online options, the Vancouver Sun reported.

As many as 1,526 new positions in schools have been created, including 624 teachers, 73 education assistants, 542 custodians and 287 other positions, like school counsellors, the ministry said.

Despite those numbers, provincial investment, oversight and enforcement of covid-19 safety policies are all inadequate, Mooring said.

“Teachers are raising the alarm,” she said. “We’ve been told to keep our bubbles to six people. How can any family in B.C. do that who has school-age children? How can any teacher who works in the system do that? How can we follow the rules being set out for everyone else?"

WorkSafeBC standards are intended for more industrial settings, not schools, Mooring said.

“It’s not intended for a pandemic,” Mooring said.

Each district has been offering different models of online learning, but Mooring says the funding is inadequate. In some districts, teachers have been made surplus in order to staff online models, but online classrooms are not subject to the same class-size rules as in-class learning, she said.

When families have to advocate for themselves, it can be inequitable, Mooring said. Some districts are only offering a weekly check-in for remote learners.

“Families are being forced to make choices between their children’s education and their family’s health,” Mooring said. “The reality is there are a lot of families in B.C. who don’t have a lot of choices.”

Teachers also take issue with changes to the provincial public health guidance for schools. The screening checklist for covid-19 symptoms was reduced from 17 symptoms to just seven. Symptoms that were removed include sore throat, runny nose, headache, fatigue, loss of appetite, muscle aches, pink eye, dizziness, abdominal pain and skin rashes. The BC Centre for Disease Control still lists all of those as symptoms, but says stuffy nose, pink eye, dizziness, abdominal pain and skin rashes are less common.

However, covid-19 often presents differently in young people. For example, sometimes in young people strokes are the first symptom of covid-19 and covid-toes, which would fall under skin rashes, are reported to be more common in young people.

Mooring said she hopes the LRB application will kick off dialogue next week.

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