Teachers, staff, and parents will have to make an unnecessarily difficult decision in three weeks. That will be the time when both Dr. Tam and Dr. Henry warn of a surge in Covid 19 cases that could overwhelm the capacity of our hospitals. Why has government created this gordian knot when it is so unnecessary?
For K-12 Education, WorkSafeBC has laid out the following 4 levels of protocols for the pandemic. They are clear that, wherever possible, schools are to use “the highest level of protection and add additional protocols as required”.
Selecting protocols for your workplace
Note that different protocols offer different protection. Wherever possible, use the protocols that offer the highest level of protection and add additional protocols as required.
First level protection (elimination): Limit the number of people in your workplace where possible by implementing work-from-home arrangements, establishing occupancy limits, rescheduling work tasks, or other means. Rearrange work spaces to ensure that workers are at least 2 m (6 ft) from co-workers, customers, and members of the public.
Second level protection (engineering controls): If you can’t always maintain physical distancing, install barriers such as plexiglass to separate people.
Third level protection (administrative controls): Establish rules and guidelines, such as cleaning protocols, telling workers to not share tools, or implementing one-way doors or walkways.
Fourth level protection (PPE): If the first three levels of protection aren’t enough to control the risk, consider the use of masks. Ensure masks are selected and cared for appropriately and that workers are using masks correctly.
As can be seen, the first and most important level of protection is to limit the number of people in a workspace. We have been told for months that there should be two metres of physical distancing.
The second priority is to have barriers such as plexiglass to separate people. Schools in Asia have done this very effectively placing a plexiglass cube on each student desk.
The third level suggests the installation of more hand washing stations and improving ventilation systems. Instead of trying to add the better alternative of many more hand washing stations, most schools are adding hand sanitizer desks.
And finally, the last level of protection is the wearing of masks which for some reason the Government is not even willing to step up and mandate.
As we look at BC’s plan to organize schools these first two levels of protection have been largely ignored. Instead the Government has switched any physical distancing requirement by adding the caveat “where possible”. Yet there are ways to reduce classes from K-10 to a maximum of 15 students, in most cases, using only the physical and human resources currently in the system.
In the case of the plexiglass cubes, the Pasqua First Nation in Saskatchewan is leading the way for all of us. They have created “sugar cubes” of plexiglass for every student’s desk as well as for teachers’ work areas. They have also designed and created portable hand washing stations and hand sanitizer stations with foot pumps. This is a community that truly cares about their children and is putting in place appropriate safety protocols! The Pasqua First Nation is making masks mandatory in schools. We can and should learn from this First Nation. Our government needs to step up if they want all students in regular sized classes. They have not done so!
Clearly, BC is falling short on their plan for a safe opening of schools on September 10th for not only the students but also the staff and community. As of today, we are already seeing our highest number of daily cases in the province and it appears to be on the rise each day. The government is excusing itself by downloading impossible expectations of a full school opening on the local school districts. At least one lower mainland district has already said it is not in the cards for their senior students and I expect others will follow suit. The incompetent and mixed messaging has left parents and staff frustrated to say the least.
Unfortunately, this all arises from trying to create a ‘normal’ system when the virus dictates we cannot have ‘normal’. While the children appear to be at less risk of serious consequences than others, the staff and family members are not. Consider the grandchild living with his seventy-year old immune compromised Grandma. Or the senior student who has one month previously finished a round of chemo for a life-threatening disease. Think of the staff member with a compromised immune system or the teacher that returns home every day to a compromised partner!
We won’t allow theaters to operate, we restrict the number of patrons in businesses, and our politicians do not even consider it safe to sit in the legislature. How on earth can we consider a classroom with 26 to 30 students, with no physical distancing, no plexiglass barriers, not enough hand washing stations, and poor ventilation to be a safe workplace? How can we possibly consider sending anyone into this situation when there are solutions the government has ignored?
Hence, comes the tough decision. Everyone, teachers, staff, parents, and kids themselves want to be in school in some way. But everyone wants the solution to be a safe and thoughtful solution designed for the present not reflecting the past. The question for each staff member to answer is:
Do I deem my classroom safe for myself and does it put anyone else at risk?
WorksafeBC has specific advice regarding this question. Two statements from WorksafeBC have relevance here. They are:
Workers have the right to refuse unsafe work. If you have reasonable cause to believe that performing a job or task puts you or someone else at risk, you must not perform the job or task;
As a worker, you have the right to refuse to perform a specific job or task you believe is unsafe without being disciplined by your employer.
September 8th or 10th is crunch time. As a result of a poor plan presented by the BC Ministry of Education every teacher must make a tough call. If I am a teacher who sees no physical distancing, no plexiglass barriers, inadequate provision of washing stations and no mandatory mask requirement, I know what my decision would be. If I am a teacher with an immune compromised system or have a student with such a compromised system, I know what my decision would be. As a teacher, I believe it is not only my right but also my obligation to the community to ensure a safe place for my students and myself. In a time when we are standing up for others lives, teachers need to stand up for their students and themselves.
There are solutions! The Pasqua First Nation has led the way. In previous writing I have shown how a different view of time and place can create a safer workplace in schools with two metres of physical distancing in each classroom. The rush to open, the attempt to re-create an old normal has the potential to lead to serious long-term consequences for staff, students, and community!
We can do better, we must do better and the government needs to step up and create a safer plan for school opening even if it takes longer and a few more dollars to do so.
Copywrite, August 15, 2020, Doug Player