Saanich district support staff question September school reopening

Adding their voices to those of a group of parents and the B.C. Teachers’ Federation, support workers in the Saanich School District say they’re concerned with the province’s plan to have students return to school Sept. 8.

The plan would see most B.C. students back in classrooms following the complete closure of B.C. schools in March and a partial reopening in June.

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One big issue is a “complete lack of worker protection,” said Dean Coates, president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 441, whose 500 members include custodians, education assistants and bus drivers.

“They will supply a non-medical mask if you request,” Coates said. “There’s no mask mandatory.”

Coates said there is also concern about a lack of protection for students “and especially the students that are medically fragile.”

He said education assistants work closely with those vulnerable students.

“Hands on, lots of physical contact, personal care,” Coates said. There is already an insufficient number of education assistants and they will be hard to hire during the pandemic, he said.

Finding space to physically distance in a classroom could be a problem, as well, Coates said.

He said some studies are starting to show that children could be more likely to transmit COVID-19 than originally thought.

Coates said he has questions about the use of cohorts — groups larger than classroom size — to organize schools. Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has likened the cohorts to the “bubbles” people observe on a daily basis.

Elementary- and middle-school cohorts will have about 60 people and secondary-school cohorts will have about 120 people.

Coates said he wonders why cohorts don’t extend to bus travel to and from school.

The BCTF is also pushing back against the province’s plans to reopen schools, following the government’s announcement of a full-time return to school.

In an interview, BCTF president Teri Mooring said her organization, as well as dozens of teachers working with the province in an advisory role, had spent weeks under the assumption that the fall semester would mirror the partial re-opening seen in June.

“The whole idea that this was going to be a full return of students came at the last minute,” Mooring said. “We were alerted to it the day before.”

Looking at a full return has a lot of implications, many of which Mooring said will probably make the Sept. 8 restart date unrealistic.

“This really changes a lot of the thinking that was going into the planning up to now,” she said. “What needs to happen now is there needs to be a lot of planning and everything needs to be rethought.”

According to Mooring, that means re-engaging a variety of working groups to sort out the details in areas such as health and safety, educational programming and equity and inclusion.

Concern about going back to school has also led a group of parents to start an online petition to keep the return voluntary .

“The school community is an important part of childhood development and families should not be forced to choose between the health and safety of their family and the school community that their children love and belong to,” said one of the petition’s Lower Mainland supporters, Alysia Chan.

“The government should provide distance-learning options without having to withdraw the child from their current school, with materials provided by the ministry to support learning from home, as this burden should not be put on teachers at the local schools to prepare separate material for students not attending in-person instructions,” she said.

“We have heard from many concerned parents and families and we believe that the families should have the right to make the decision based on their own circumstances, without being forced to withdraw their children from their school.”

Chan said there are multiple concerns about the B.C. plan, including masks not being mandatory and size of the learning groups that will be implemented at schools.

— With files from Tri-City News and Burnaby Now

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