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  • Tracy Sherlock

Surrey teachers implore Dr. Henry for mask mandate, smaller classes

This BC Centre for Disease Control map shows the distribution of covid-19 cases throughout Metro Vancouver for December 4-10, 2020.

Teachers in Surrey are begging health leaders in B.C. to adopt a mask mandate in schools and to reduce density in classrooms.

“We are not safe,” writes Julia MacRae, first vice-president of the Surrey Teachers’ Association, in an open letter to provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry. “Every day, we continue to put ourselves our loved ones, and communities at risk. It is dangerous and unfair to be expected to continue in this way without appropriate measures to ensure our safety.”

The letter, dated December 15, is from Surrey’s 6,000 teachers, who provide education to 75,000 students in B.C.’s largest school district. Surrey has been ground zero for covid-19 in B.C., with more than 20 new cases per 100,000 people each day. On Dec. 16 there were 73 active covid-19 exposures in Surrey schools, with some schools listed more than once.

At least one Surrey teacher was in ICU with covid-19 earlier this fall and at least two schools – Newton and Cambridge elementary schools – have had to close due to outbreaks.

“We are all doing our best to meet the guidelines, but we implore you to change the requirement for all students to be attending at the same time,” MacRae wrote. “We urge you to reconsider mandating masks in all indoor spaces, including schools and to implement 50 per cent density in classrooms.”

Surrey school superintendent Jordan Tinney sent out an “enormous message of gratitude” to employees earlier this week. He said anxiety has been high in schools, but “school spirit remains high” and “there has been amazing things going on in our schools.”

About 10,000 Surrey students chose to study remotely since September, but Tinney said about 1,300 are opting to return to class after the winter break. That will cause some classes to be reorganized, adding to the stress for students, parents and teachers.

There is a shortage of teachers on call, due both to a general teacher shortage and to the fact that many retired teachers who had been working on-call are afraid of getting covid-19, MacRae writes in the letter.

“Students lose vital services when their counsellors and special education teachers have to cover classes,” she said. “Our levels of daily stress are almost unbearable.”

Teachers say masks are “visible, symbolic and enforceable” and that without a mask mandate, they can’t insist that everyone wears one in the classroom.

“We need to have a mask mandate. We need to be able to physically distance students by reducing classroom density to 50 per cent,” MacRae writes. “In any other public setting, there would be fines to have 30 people sitting close together in one 75-square-meter space without masks. In jurisdictions across the world, students wear masks inside classrooms. It’s one of the most important layers of protection against the transmission of the virus.”

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