Smoke drifting from wildfires in Washington, Oregon and California continued to blanket the province on Monday, prompting Canada Post to suspend delivery across Vancouver Island and parts of B.C.
With the poor air quality expected to persist on today, the Greater Victoria Teachers’ Association and the B.C. Teachers’ Federation asked that schools be closed because keeping students in classrooms with closed windows and doors could increase the risk of COVID-19 infection.
The air quality health index for Victoria, Saanich and the West Shore as of Monday evening was 10, which is considered high risk, particularly for children, the elderly and those with cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses. An air quality index of 10 is forecast for today.
Environment Canada’s smoky skies bulletin released Monday afternoon was forecasting heavy wildfire smoke across much of southern B.C. and all of Vancouver Island for the next 24 to 72 hours.
Canada Post announced Monday afternoon that it was suspending delivery due to poor air quality in central and southern B.C.
The postal service said delivery will be suspended across most of Vancouver Island including Greater Victoria, Duncan, Campbell River, Courtenay, Nanaimo and Port Alberni. “Delivery will resume once it is deemed safe to do so,” the corporation said.
Schools in the Saanich and Greater Victoria school districts remained open on Monday, restricting outdoor activities and keeping doors and windows shut.
“There really wasn’t any question that we were going to open today,” Saanich superintendent Dave Eberwein said. He said all schools have updated heating and ventilation systems with new filters that catch particulate matter, which means air inside schools is clean and well circulated.
“So with the other COVID-19 protocols in place such as hand washing, wearing masks in high-traffic areas, physical distancing where possible, there isn’t any increased risk for students for being at school today.”
Greater Victoria Teachers’ Association president Winona Waldron said keeping students inside with the windows closed is in direct conflict with the COVID-19 exposure control plan and the B.C. Centre for Disease Control’s public health guidelines for students. The plan instructs schools to enhance school ventilation by moving activities outdoors when possible and opening windows to maximize air flow. The association said schools must close until the air quality returns to safe levels.
“We don’t have any reduced classroom density so now we’ve got 30 students plus adults in a room with no open windows,” Waldron said.
“I don’t lightly call on the school district to close schools. But I am scared when the air quality says it’s very hazardous, 10+, and at the same time, we’re being told you have to have your windows open because the danger from COVID is also hazardous.”
Waldron said she has heard from teachers who asked about their right to refuse unsafe work under WorkSafe B.C. guidelines.
“That language for [WorkSafe B.C.] wasn’t written with the view that we would be both in this climate emergency and in a pandemic at the same time in the first week of school,” Waldron said.
The B.C. Teachers’ Federation, which represents 41,000 public school teachers in B.C., had advised teachers to take a sick day Monday if they were feeling ill, especially from symptoms brought on by the the poor air quality. Eberwein said the Saanich school district did not see any “unusual absenteeism,” but rather “lots of excitement for the first full day of school.”
Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said Monday that people should consider wearing masks outdoors and strenuous exercise should be avoided until the wildfire smoke clears.
Asked to weigh in, Premier John Horgan said decisions for teachers or students to stay at home, in this case for poor air quality, should made by local authorities.
“I believe that, just like a snow day, those are local decisions,” he said.