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After latest outbreak, Surrey teachers call for mandatory masks, smaller classes

Click to play video 'More calls for mandatory masks in B.C. schools' More calls for mandatory masks in B.C. schools
More calls for mandatory masks in B.C. schools – Nov 27, 2020

The Surrey Teachers’ Association is demanding stricter protocols to combat COVID-19 in the district’s schools.

It comes as health officials closed a second Surrey school on Friday night amid a new outbreak involving 16 cases.

Read more: Fraser Health declares COVID-19 outbreak at Newton Elementary School in Surrey

In a letter to the Surrey Board of Education dated Nov. 27, the association makes four specific demands, echoing the position of the BC Teachers’ Federation.

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Association president Matt Westphal says the two most important issues are mandatory masks in classrooms and reducing student density to 50 per cent.

“We had Cambridge Elementary closed two weeks ago — that didn’t come as a surprise to me … and I, unfortunately, expected it wouldn’t be the last one — and we have now Newton Elementary that just closed for two weeks, staff and students having to self isolate,” Westphal said.

Read more: Hospitalized teacher from shuttered, COVID-stricken Surrey school speaks out

“I believe there will be more. So my question to the public health authorities would be: If they’re not going to step back and reduce density now, when will they? How bad does it have to get before they will actually make a more significant change for schools rather than just doubling down on what they’re currently doing?”

The association is also calling for the district to reopen online learning programs for parents who don’t want to send their kids to school, and to accommodate teachers with underlying health issues.

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Surrey, B.C. teacher shares ICU battle with COVID-19 – Nov 28, 2020

Darlene Lourenco, a Cambridge Elementary music teacher with underlying health conditions who ended up in the ICU, told Global News this week she was unsure about returning to work due to the risk.

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In a statement Saturday, the Ministry of Education said it understood teachers’ concerns.

“We will continue to work with the (provincial health officer) and our education partners to ensure K-12 guidelines and school district safety plans are providing the safest possible learning environments for students and staff,” reads the statement.

“Schools mirror what’s happening in our communities and while that means we’ve seen cases in schools – we’re still seeing low transmission rates inside our schools.”

Westphal says teachers aren’t convinced.

“There are transmissions in schools, Newton in Cambridge, clearly,” he said.

“I mean, we have probably at least five schools where there were transmissions. And a lot of teachers believe there have been more than that.”

On Friday, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry told reporters that B.C.’s back to school program was “aligned” with other provinces and that officials remain confident in their approach.

READ MORE: COVID-19-stricken B.C. school ‘should have been closed a week ago,’ say parents

Both Alberta and Ontario, however, require students from Grades 4 to 12 to wear masks in classrooms.

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The BC Teachers’ Federation has launched its own campaign to create a “culture of mask wearing” among teachers and students.

Westphal said he hasn’t heard back yet from the Surrey school board, nor has he had a chance to speak with new education minister Jennifer Whiteside.

Global News has requested comment from the board and the ministry.