The president of Burnaby’s teachers' union has added his voice to a chorus of others in the Fraser Health region calling on public health officials to be more transparent and make schools safer against COVID-19.
‘Not safe enough’
In a joint statement sent out Thursday morning, 12 BC Teachers’ Federation local presidents said many schools in the region are “not safe enough and the status quo is unacceptable.”
Representing teachers from Burnaby to Boston Bar, they called on Fraser Health officials to improve contact tracing, reduce density in classrooms, make masks mandatory in all indoor spaces, provide clarity around how and why outbreaks are declared in schools, and make sure school staff are “appropriately prioritized” to receive coronavirus vaccinations.
The letter said mask use in the region’s schools is inconsistent; cohorts easily break down; and there is little room for physical distancing, especially in schools that are full or over capacity.
“As a result, the layers of protection do not exist in many of our schools like they do in most other indoor public spaces,” stated the letter.
It gave a number of examples of problems at schools.
Concerns in Burnaby
Among them, it said there had been a “likely outbreak” at a Burnaby elementary school where a number of staff and students contracted COVID-19 in the same week, but no outbreak was declared and no classes or cohorts got isolation letters.
“This is around clear communication and more transparency,” Burnaby Teachers’ Association president Daniel Tetrault said in an interview with the NOW. “When a number of staff and students contract COVID-19 within a few days at the same school, it sets off alarm bells.”
Tetrault said public health officials have also left teachers out of the contact-tracing process in some cases, even though teachers know all about their students’ activities and contacts during the school day.
“That’s definitely a frustration that I’ve heard from teachers, where there have been exposures in their classrooms and then they were not contacted by Fraser Health,” he said. “The way they found out was through a letter or they found out ahead of time from the student or the parent and were waiting for that call to help with the contact tracing and never received it."
Tetrault said there has been “lots of concern” among local teachers about coming back after the winter break, but the concerns in the letter existed before the holidays.
He noted there have been COVID-19 exposures at more than half of the district's elementary schools and all of its high schools.
When asked if local teachers felt safe in Burnaby schools, Tetrault said: “I think the better question is, can schools be safer? Even though staff, teachers and students are working to make schools safer, there’s always room for increased safety measures.”
He declined to make comparisons between conditions in local schools and those in other districts, saying only that “everyone has particular challenges, and some have more challenges than others, but the common theme and why we came together is because across all our locals and districts, schools can be safer.”
Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, however, continues to maintain that schools are a “very safe” place to be during the pandemic.
At a briefing while schools were out for the holidays last month, she said the data show schools are not a place where “transmission spreads widely.”
“When the safety protocols that are in place in schools are followed, it is a very safe environment, and transmission is very unlikely,” she said.