‘I’m a teacher and here’s why I’m angry about school plan’

    'My classroom has room for 12 desks - what happened to distancing?'

    Burnaby – Back-to-school discussions are raging across Canada as provinces announce their plans for September.

    Here in BC, Education Minister Rob Fleming and Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry announced the province’s plan on July 29, 2020.

    There has been an explosion of response from both teachers and parents since then.

    Jennifer Heighton - Burnaby teacher.
    Burnaby school teacher Jennifer Heighton

    Please note that I desperately want to be able to teach my students in person, to get to know them, help them learn and grow, and contribute to the community with the job that I know and love.

    However, this is a pandemic. And as such, sufficient safety measures should be in place to ensure that everyone is safe, the same way that other professions have had. But BC’s safety provisions for schools are vastly different and are contradictory compared to the provisions for other sectors.

    What are these discrepancies?

    First, the number of contacts allowed is much larger than the provincial recommendation of “no gatherings of more than 50”.

    For elementary and middle schools, students and teachers can interact in learning groups of 60. Secondary schools have learning groups of 120.

    For a family that has several students in the system, that means their contact bubble has suddenly grown from 10 to literally hundreds; several hundreds if their parents are also in the education system.

    Second, there can be no physical distancing when 22-30 students are packed into a classroom.

    My classroom will only fit 12 desks distanced at 2m apart, with the last row unable to see the board or hear well because they are at the very back wall.

    But the plan is demanding full capacity for the buildings, K-12. That means my class would probably be between 27-30 students, my usual class size.

    The same numbers apply to high schools, whose rooms are also at capacity in a normal year.

    Many schools are so full that they have portables dotting their fields. How is it that stores and restaurants have clear distancing guidelines, but schools don’t?

    Third, the plan ignores the fact that the COVID-19 virus is so difficult to contain because of asymptomatic/pre-symptomatic aerosolized spread.

    This happens especially in indoor situations, with poor ventilation, and when people are exposed to each other for extended periods of time. There are numerous scientific studies that document this, and lots of evidence from trusted sources.

    Yet BC schools are poorly set up to mitigate the “indoor problem”.

    Some rooms do not have windows that open, and those that do would be uncomfortably cold for the majority of the school months.

    Years of underfunding have led to infrastructure that is well behind other workplaces. Compare that to a hospital, which must have carefully monitored and controlled indoor environments.

    Fourth, the plan’s stance on face coverings, or masks, is weak. It is now commonly known that a face covering is essential to mitigate spread when physical distancing cannot happen, especially indoors.

    Yet BC’s plans for schools says that “PPE is not needed for most staff” and that “wearing a non-medical mask or face covering is a personal choice.” ( Ontario’s plan calls for mandatory masking for grades 4 to 12.)

    In comparison, children in Asian countries have universally worn masks without issues, and those countries have been able to keep their case numbers low.

    This virus does not care about personal choice; it takes the easiest route to infect others, and wearing a mask helps to prevent that.

    Fifth, BC’s back-to-school plan ignores the evidence of outbreaks among children, including at daycares, summer camps and schools in other countries.

    The CDC report on the Georgia summer camp incident that led to hundreds of infections among children, including 6-10 year olds, is of particular concern.

    There, the adults wore masks but the children didn’t, proving that child-to-child transmission was the main driver of the outbreak.

    Sixth, the funding for this plan is paltry at best.  BC’s education funding has been consistently lower than the rest of the country for almost 2 decades now.

    It has trended from $1000-$1800 less per student than the national average for 18 years, and that is in non-pandemic times.

    The $45.6 million given to implement this plan works out to about $80 per student more.

    That does not even come close to closing the gap that other provinces spend. Funding to the national average could pay for much better safety measures.

    As an elementary teacher, I am outraged at this plan.  I am angry that the announcement contained a completely different “Stage 2” than was revealed in May, a change that was a complete surprise to teachers and school districts and was not discussed in the working groups that the Ministry set up for consultation.

    I am angry that the government is putting students and school staff members at risk by mandating that all school buildings be at full capacity.

    I am angry that parents now have to wrestle with the impossible question of whether to send their child back to school under these conditions.

    I am angry that teachers and other school staff members must enlarge their bubble, without protections, way beyond what other workers have been expected to.

    I am angry that there is a clear double standard when it comes to safety provisions for children and school staff versus other professions and workplaces.

    And I am angry that the growing body of scientific evidence for how this virus behaves and sometimes leaves long-term health effects is being downplayed or ignored.

    I am very active on social media so I am aware of the concerns that many teachers and parents are feeling with this announcement. I know that I am not alone in expressing the concerns above.

    There are safer ways to reopen schools, as evidenced by jurisdictions that have set caps on class sizes to 15, for example, or employed a hybrid model of part-time in class and part-time remote learning. Mandating masks, fixing ventilation issues, and installing washing stations for all rooms that do not have a sink would also help.

    And limiting the occupancies of school buildings by utilizing other community spaces would prevent overcrowding.

    I hope that the BC government and the provincial health office take the concerns of teachers and parents into consideration, engage in meaningful consultation with teachers, and change the plan, before BC becomes the poster child for outbreaks once school reopens in September.

    The cost-benefit of reducing or avoiding the expected “second wave” by being prudent would be well worth it to society. Why take the risk?


    1. I have to agree with your concerns. If every place of work, every institution, is required to follow PHO guidance why are schools considered to be distinct places where by some miracle, magic or voodoo children and teachers will be safe?

      This plan needs to be reworked. I see the Liberals have finally broken their silence on this as well and joined BCTF in calling this plan a non-starter.

      The latest scientific evidence suggests children are efficient at transmitting the virus. There are plenty of examples of repeated shutdowns. Just one case of things going wrong will result in parents not sending their kids to these covid factories.

      Let’s build consensus on how to open safely.

    2. Maybe you guys should just learn from Taiwan. School has barely been effected here. Students are one of the least at risk groups.

    3. I agree with everything you have said. Why can’t BC come up with a better back to school plan like Ontario?

    4. You have made some valid concerns and I totally understand teacher’s fear but let’s look at things from anther perspective. First, I want to thank teachers for all that you do for our kids and we can get through this together, it will have challenges and we will adjust together.
      I work in healthcare, actually in ICU with covid 19 patients, as do many of my close friends and husband. We all have kids and all of us sent our kids back to school in June. Why? because the online system failed our kids, they received more than most kids but in our opinion from people who hold education for our children as “essential” it was challenging. And trust me when I say most parents that I worked with felt the same way. When you are paid to work, you work, don’t offer children 1 hour of zoom/week or day and except parents to teach, work, feed,ect. I have many friends who are also teachers and what did I see on instagram daily pictures of teachers hiking, doing yoga, paddle boarding during class hours and I did not see any social distancing between teachers. So when you say you are scared for you safety I believe you and so was I. But I didn’t have the opportunity to protest or blame instead I showed up everyday and I returned home to help my kids with their homework. I am completely surprised that teachers and parents are surprised by the governments plan to return to schooL. To me it was very clear that this was the plan when they announced back to school in June.
      I have reviewed and look at articles and facebook feeds and stories. The Georgia overnight camp… lets look at this situation:
      1) Instructors showed up before campers and guess what some had symptoms and passed it on to other instructors who than passed it on to teachers.
      2) Masks. The instructors wore masks but they did not wear them to bed or 100%. Yes I think masks should be mandatory for all teachers and support staff and when kids are working together for assignments they should. The government is going to provide reuseable masks to all students and staff. Maybe your school will make this mandatory?? I think its worth bringing up in a meeting.
      3). There were 15 people/cabin.. now I don’t think we are allowing that here nor can you compare this to school which may I remind you is “essential”
      4) There were kids chanting and singing something which we know spreads the disease. When I listened to Dr. Henry whom I highly respect, stated would only be allowed if it were outdoors and if indoors social distancing would be required.
      In regards to outbreaks and that is everywhere across the world it is when people have become complacent. I am tired of Covid 19 and I desperately want to go back to living a normal care free life but guess what this is likely going to be around for a long time, perhaps 2 -3 years. What would you suggest? online education or half days. Tell me how that works, how does that reduce your risk? You are going to still be exposed to 27-30 kids throughout the week.
      When Dr. Henry states 60 people/bubble it does not mean there will be 60 people in your bubble, it could be less. Plus, I doubt that everyone will send their child to school. Instead, it means 60 people in that bubble on the play ground instead of everyone student at the sametime. I don’t know where you think healthcare workers work in an environment of less than 50…. that has never happened and there are a lot of work environments that don’t have 50 people or less. This rule applies to social events.
      I totally understand you are nervous/scared/ so am I. We have to work together. Teach our kids how to wash their hands, stay home when they are sick, and yes I agree wear masks for kids in grade 4 and up. If kids do not follow the rules parents should have to pick them up immediately. Things will change and all of us will have to adapt. We cannot let the gap between the lower, middle and upper socioeconomic classes get larger. Many people depend on the school system and we need to look at school as “essential. If school were to return to on line there needs to be accountability, teachers need to be present with their students and teach them no more 1 hour zoom lessons.
      Teachers do an amazing jobs and I truly appreciate all that you do!

      • BZ Thank you for your response. I appreciate all you do in the healthcare field. Thank you for all you do, too.

        Yes, teachers are worried. But mainly because the “health protocols” for schools are vastly different and without the protections that every other workplace (including hospitals) have in place. No masks (only “if requested”), no plexiglass, no ventilation systems or windows in some rooms, spending 5 in-class hours in an indoor situation, breathing the same air, crowded in a classroom the size of which, if it was a clothing store, would only allow up to 10 people maximum (and I’m being generous there…probably 8 would be a more realistic limit). And stores don’t share the same space with the same people in there 5 hours every day.

        Scientists keep repeating that the most dangerous situations are indoors, with poor ventilation, spending a long exposure time with an infected person. And that the volume of virus inhaled over that time could determine how sick someone gets. And that asymptomatic spread is a real thing with this virus, and that children are often asymptomatic but are carrying the same amount of virus in their respiratory tracts.

        So telling teachers and parents to “just suck it up and do it” isn’t good enough.

        Yes, emergency remote learning was tough. The majority of teachers I know spent 12 hour days (some more than that) researching and learning new platforms, composing emails, responding to emails, creating online accounts for students on various sites, answering questions, assessing work that was handed in, monitoring student progress and creating new lessons that could be done from home and then typing out the instructions. It was a lot more than a 1 hour Zoom session. There were also a lot of meetings and collaboration going on that took time too.

        The logistics of our actual buildings makes the proposed plan unsafe. There aren’t enough sinks. The rooms are way too small to distance with normal class sizes. When Bonnie Henry says there will be distancing, that’s not possible in the square footage that we have. The ventilation systems are poor or non-existent. When they say “go outside”, can you imagine a school of 350 out on the field? We will be using the outdoor spaces for gym classes and for staggered recesses and lunches – there will not be much space left over for outdoor classes too. And then in October the rains set in and by November (in the north) it’s snowing.

        What do I suggest instead?
        – choice. Remote learning options for those who want to continue with learning from home. Some families have children who are immuno-compromised or have family members that are. Some teachers are in the same boat. Districts could expand their DL programs, hire the teachers that need accommodations, and have parents register for that, if they want.
        – in-school learning for those families that prefer that option. By offering both remote and in-school, the class sizes of those in the buildings would be reduced. Money would be needed so that teachers could be hired to take the places of the ones who needed accommodations, but since the government is shortchanging education by over $1000/student every year, they can find the money for this, if opening up the economy and preventing a second wave (and further, longer shutdown) is so important.
        – mandatory masks for all in the building. Yes, young ones too, those who can handle them. Kids in Taiwan, Japan, and other Asian countries are doing it; ours can too. We teach them to tie shoes; for their safety and that of others (including their parents and grandparents), it’s what we have to do to get control over this virus.
        – washing stations for rooms without sinks. Denmark, Taiwan and China do this.
        – in-school class size caps of 15.
        – install windows that open.

        There are solutions out there, there just has to be the will to do it. If other jurisdictions can do it, why can’t we? Our children are worth it. A society that can keep its economy going by avoiding shutting down is worth it. Keeping our health system from being overwhelmed is worth it.

        We need to learn from the renewed outbreaks in other countries and not repeat their mistakes.

        I think we should stick to our respective fields of expertise. Teachers live this reality every day for years, so the outpouring of anxiety over this is well-founded. Thank you for listening and understanding that.

        • I get your point. Two different professions. Both doing a lot for society. Nurses have N95 masks but teachers will get cloth masks. Vast difference. School structures are at developing country levels. Ventilation is a saviour. Distancing is going to be tricky. Sanitation is not like hospitals. Class sizes have increased but spacing has decreased – because of school shutdowns. Thank you both for your perspectives

    5. Very well written article! I share the same concerns. We have a shortage of substitute teachers. When one is not found, suddenly my class of 22 becomes a class off 27, sitting from 4 to a table to 5 in a grade 3/4. Most subs are retired teachers, I highly doubt any of them will sub in a school if someone is sick, risking their own lives. What then? Where is the social distancing? Where is the cohort if the absent teacher is from the other side of the building?

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