B.C. teachers' union calls for smaller classes, masks in back-to-school plan

VANCOUVER — Teachers in British Columbia are calling for reduced class sizes and broader mandatory use of masks as provinces grapple with how to safely reopen schools.

The B.C. Teachers Federation issued a statement Wednesday asking the provincial government to add more physical distancing measures to its back-to-school plan to reduce the transmission of COVID-19.

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Federation president Teri Mooring said the union has been working with the province but some of its biggest concerns have not been addressed.

"When we go into the grocery store or we go into the drug store we're expected to wear masks, and often times the number of people in the space is also restricted," she said in an interview. "So we're looking for the same health and safety measures that we know work, that we know limit transmission of the virus, to be required in classrooms as well."

The federation issued seven recommendations including a reduction in class density, retrofitting classrooms with physical barriers and funding to replace outdated ventilation systems.

It also wants when masks must be worn expanded for staff and students who are 10 and older beyond common areas like hallways to anywhere that physical distancing is not possible, including classrooms, libraries and labs.

Education Minister Rob Fleming said a number of issues raised by the union have been addressed through working groups. The government's restart plan enables districts to provide schooling within guidelines set by the B.C. Centre for Disease Control.

"The health and safety of teachers, students and staff is our top priority," Fleming said in a statement

Class sizes average between 18 students for kindergarten and 22.4 students for grades 8 to 12, the government said.

And the government has committed $45.6 million for enhanced cleaning, hand washing stations, reusable masks and other supplies, he said.

Many provinces are requiring masks for Grades 4 through 12 but where they will be required varies.

In Manitoba, it's wherever two metres of physical distance cannot be maintained, while in Alberta it's in common areas like hallways and buses and in Ontario it's anywhere indoors including classrooms.

Class attendance is required for elementary and high school students in Quebec for anyone who doesn't have a doctor's note indicating they're at high risk to COVID-19 complications or live with someone who is.

Alberta is planning a full return to school but the government says measures will be tightened if an outbreak occurs and class sizes could be reduced to 20.

B.C. school districts must post final back-to-school details online by Aug. 26 but the ministry has provided some guidance on what is expected.

Learning groups are being established on the advice of the provincial health officer to help prevent the transmission of COVID-19 and could be made up of a single class of students or multiple classes.

For elementary and middle school students, groups will be no larger than 60 people. Secondary school groups will be capped at 120.

However, Mooring said the restart plan for kindergarten to Grade 12 has made no change to classroom density and it's impossible to physical distance with 30 people in a classroom, even using learning groups.

The union is particularly worried about the situation in B.C.'s largest and fastest growing districts that use hundreds of portables.

"Many B.C. schools also have outdated ventilation systems and thousands of students will be in classrooms without external windows," Mooring said.

The union is also calling for a remote learning option, especially for children with medical problems or those with vulnerable family members, and accommodations for immunocompromised teachers.

On Monday, the ministry announced staff and students at middle and secondary schools will be required to wear masks on buses and in common areas like hallways when classes resume on Sept. 10.

The provincial government says masks will also be required whenever students and teachers are outside their learning group and cannot maintain an appropriate physical distance.

Students who can't wear masks for medical reasons will be exempt from the updated health and safety guidelines.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 19, 2020.

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version said the average class size of 22.4 students was only for Grade 12.

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