Safe Schools Coalition BC listened Wednesday for the British Columbia government to announce enhanced safety measures, as highlighted in our open letter to British Columbia's education minister Jennifer Whiteside, to protect all members of school communities. Once again, we are disappointed that provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and education minister Jennifer Whiteside failed to do everything needed to mitigate risks in schools.
While a one week delay to the school year is a good start, schools should be remote until community spread is lower and test positivity is below five per cent. BC classrooms and schools need to use all the layers of protection to protect against an airborne virus.
The following are layers of protection BC has not included in the latest safety measures:
Ventilation: Minister Whiteside stated $300 million was spent to upgrade HVAC systems in schools, which have been underfunded for decades. This is significantly higher than data on expenditures on the BC ministry of education website. As this likely includes long-delayed maintenance needed for these facilities, we expect that more will need to be spent for additional measures needed during a pandemic. The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) recommends indoor air quality monitoring to proactively improve air quality using tools such as HEPA air purifiers, Corsi-Rosenthal boxes, vacating the classroom when necessary, opening windows and doors, etc. BC must purchase monitoring equipment for classrooms that don’t have indoor air quality monitoring. These upgrades are an investment in our learning spaces, as air quality is a concern outside of an airborne pandemic. It will allow our classrooms to function during wildfire smoke spread and other events.
Test and trace: BC must provide rapid tests for surveillance purposes whenever a positive case is confirmed in a class. BC also must provide information to all school communities, using all communication tools, to clearly state the expectations regarding sharing information on health status and daily health checks. This should not be left to the school administrators to communicate on their own. This is a complete reversal from last year, and while it is welcomed, significant communication will be needed for individuals to feel comfortable making information available about their health status.
Physical distancing: The risk for classrooms with 20 to 30 students plus staff is very high. Measures such as staggered lunch times and staggered recesses do not address the time of highest transmission: during lunch when masks are removed and during prolonged exposure in the classroom without respirators.
Vaccination: increase vaccination capacity for students and boosters for education staff and students. The current plan to prioritise education staff allows only those 50 years and older to be fully vaccinated with a booster dose by the end of January. This is not nearly fast enough for a highly transmissible virus that is causing hospitalisation for those who are not vaccinated and those who are under-vaccinated.
Masks: provide N95, KN95, CAN95, or equivalent, respirators to all education staff and students. The chief public health officer of Canada, Dr. Theresa Tam, has clearly recommended well-fitted respirators over cloth and single layered, non-filtering, masks. "Something like a respirator is a better fit for people's faces in general," Tam told CBC News. All districts in BC should have access to this resource.
Support: one important tool missing from BC's current plan, the absence of which creates inequity, is support for families who are not deemed essential workers, and are thus required to keep their children home when the school year resumes. Currently, they cannot access federal supports, as a formal lockdown has not been declared in BC; the province should step in to fill this gap. Support for these families is necessary, in order for them to be able to keep their children home and protected, without facing financial hardship, while work is done to make schools safer.
As communicated by BC premier John Horgan in his mandate letter to minister Whiteside, BC must “ensure quality public education continues to be delivered during and after the COVID-19 pandemic through implementation of appropriate guidelines to ensure safety”. To continue to provide quality education, we must provide a safe and inclusive education space using the tools at our disposal. BC has never worked to lower transmission by using all of the tools available. It is time to do that so that we can protect students, teachers, and staff.