A Response to Minister Whiteside’s Response

Recently parents and teachers who wrote to the Minister of Education expressing concerns about the current pandemic plan for B.C. schools received a response. This blog, created with help from Lisa Davis and Steve Lyne, is a response to that response.

Thank you for taking time to write and for sharing your questions, comments and concerns. I want to assure you that as we begin the new school year, the health and safety of students, staff and their families is at the forefront of every decision we make as we continue to navigate through recovering from the global COVID-19 pandemic.

We find it extremely difficult to believe that the health and safety of students, staff and their families is at the forefront of every decision you make. If that were true, BC’s schools would have the same protocols, procedures and responses that schools in Atlantic Canada have had. There, schools are shut down as soon as there are outbreaks and community controls don’t depend alone on the moral integrity of the adults in the community. At this point in the pandemic with BC’s COVID-19 cases averaging 700 per day, can we really make the argument that we are “recovering” from this pandemic? Surely if we were in recovery, we’d be in a position to help Alberta as their hospitals overflow?

Ensuring students have access to in-class instruction is essential for the social and emotional well-being of students across the province. In-class instruction is vitally important, not only to minimize learning gaps, but because schools play a critical role in our communities, providing essential access to supports such as mental health and food programs during these uncertain times. Thanks to the enormous collective efforts of everyone in the K-12 education system, British Columbia is one of the few jurisdictions that was able to keep schools open during the 2020/21 school year despite the pandemic.

If schools play such a critical role in communities, why are BC students the lowest funded in western Canada, at almost $2,000 below the Canadian average?

Why is it that 10 years after the Adopt-A-School charity was started in response to teacher Carrie Gelson publishing an open letter begging for help to support her starving and cold students, it continues to fill the need to feed students? Why do schools still have to fundraise to support food programs in schools? If feeding starving children was a priority of your government, why not fund food programs in schools? Why do school districts have charity status so that they can collect donations as the Surrey School district does?

If the social and emotional well-being of students across the province was a priority, there wouldn’t be overcrowded classrooms and a scarcity of supports for students who struggle with learning. Elementary schools wouldn’t only have a counsellor one day a week. A student who has difficulty learning shouldn’t have to share the support of one education assistant with 5 other struggling students in their class.

Keeping schools open during the pandemic came at enormous cost to the mental well-being of K-12 staff as is evident from research conducted by the BCTF and by the Canadian Federation of Teachers and by UBC Early Learning Partnerships.

Vaccines are the most effective way to reduce the risk of COVID-19 in schools and communities. The vaccines used in British Columbia remain highly effective against COVID-19, including among variants of concern. Two doses of vaccine are available for everyone 12 and older and everyone who is eligible is strongly encouraged to get fully vaccinated. While COVID-19 is present in our communities, there will continue to be COVID-19 exposures in schools involving students and staff. However, the BC Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) reports that, with the increasing proportion of people 12 and over being fully vaccinated and effective communicable disease measures continuing to be in place, exposures are unlikely to lead to further transmission

One third of B.C. students who are eligible for vaccines are still not vaccinated. There are no vaccines for K-6 students. There is no mask mandate for K-3 students. Students under 12 have to rely on the moral integrity of the adults around them. Their access to fresh air is dependent on whether their school district has the funding to fully upgrade ventilation systems. The fact is that B.C. public schools have indoor spaces with the highest concentration of unvaccinated people in B.C.

Internationally renowned experts have criticized BC Public Health’s plan for schools and there have been local calls for the BC CDC to provide the science that backs their plan for schools. Teachers continue to wait for the facts that support the refusal to mandate masks for K-3 students.

To keep students and staff safe, the Ministry of Education will continue to follow the direction of Dr. Bonnie Henry and the Provincial Health Office (PHO). The provincial K-12 Education Steering Committee, comprised of educators, parents, support workers, school leaders, Indigenous rightsholders, and public health experts worked with the Ministry and the BCCDC over the summer to review and update the Provincial COVID-19 Communicable Disease Guidelines for K-12 Settings. All boards of education and independent school authorities will continue to follow these guidelines

Based on characteristics of the school plan, the main focus seems to be ensuring parents continue to go to work while their children are at unsafe schools in order to keep the economy going. Questionable regard for the welfare of students in a recent healthcare workers’ webinar led to widespread outrage.

And, can you explain why a Public Health Officer would use parent anxiety as the reason for changes to school notifications? Currently, frantic parents are using social media to find out if there have been positive cases in their child’s school and are angry that they have to do so. Why is it that two moms provide more information about positive cases in BC schools than your Ministry does?

Although PHO guidance no longer recommends the use of learning groups/cohorts in the K-12 setting, schools will continue to employ measures to help create space between people, as well as implement daily cleaning and disinfecting protocols and ensure that ventilation systems are operated and maintained in accordance with provincial standards. Parents/caregivers, students, staff and other adults are required to complete daily health checks, stay home when feeling sick and practice diligent hygiene. All K-12 staff, students in Grades 4 to 12, and visitors are required to wear a mask indoors in schools and on school buses. Students in Kindergarten to Grade 3 are encouraged to wear a mask. School gatherings and events (including inter-school events) can occur in line with those permitted as per relevant local, regional, provincial, and federal public health recommendations and Orders. Public health teams and school health officers will also continue to monitor COVID-19 cases in schools and the community and will continue to provide support and guidance to schools.

There is no ability to distance in overcrowded schools. None. Daily cleaning has been reduced to pre-pandemic levels. Despite your Ministry ordering schools to install MERV 13 filters, most schools still do not have this done and those who have upgraded their filters have replaced MERV 8 with MERV 11 filters which are inadequate for the task of filtering virus-laden air. Too many schools have outdated ventilation systems that should be replaced and would have been if the health of students in public schools in B.C. truly was a priority of your government.

Image by @moss_sphagnum

Our government remains committed to providing stable funding to support students, schools and districts during this recovery from the pandemic. As announced on June 17, 2021, the Province is providing $43.6 million to support ongoing health and safety measures, First Nations and Métis students, mental health services, rapid response teams, and to address learning impacts to students. Of the $43.6 million, $25.6 million in new one-time funding will be used for:

Health and safety, including Rapid Response Teams, cleaning and supplies ($14.4 million);
Support for First Nations students and building capacity within First Nations Education Steering Committee and Métis Nation BC ($5 million);
Mental health services ($5 million); and
Independent schools ($1.2 million).

$43.6 million divided by 563,000 students means $77 per student
$14.4 million divided by 1578 schools means $9,125 per school. How much can that buy in schools with over 2000 students?
$5 million for mental health services means $8 per student. Elementary schools have a counsellor one day per week.

Rapid Response Teams, which have been in place since February 2021 in each of the five health authority regions, continue to operate this school year. The teams will focus on reviewing school communicable disease plans, conducting safety assessments and supporting communications to students, staff and families regarding communicable disease prevention. They will also help schools and school districts to implement pandemic recovery plans including a focus on addressing impacts on learning and supporting student and staff mental health.

If the “communication” and “guidance” is based on the outdated science about droplets that ignores the airborne transmission of the delta variant, Rapid Response Teams are merely performing public relations spin. COVID-19 is not in the same category as communicable diseases like measles, mumps or pink eye and trying to assuage parents’ and teachers’ concerns with that prevarication is eroding trust in our public health system.

We are appalled at the government’s current response to this pandemic and are frustrated that our concerns are continually dismissed by the Ministry of Education as is the case with this response from Minister Whiteside.

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