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Boost school safety if B.C. teachers won’t get COVID-19 vaccine early, union says

Click to play video 'B.C. teachers and grocery store workers won’t get COVID-19 shots early' B.C. teachers and grocery store workers won’t get COVID-19 shots early
B.C.'s updated vaccine rollout plan means what was initially supposed to be a guaranteed shot in the arm for some essential workers is now a shot in the dark. Jordan Armstrong has reaction from frontline employees who will no longer be getting priority immunizations – Jan 22, 2021

The BC Teachers’ Federation says if non-medical front-line workers won’t be prioritized for COVID-19 vaccines, the province needs to boost safety measures in B.C.’s schools.

The province unveiled its updated vaccine rollout plans on Friday, which accounts for a delay in shipments of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine announced last week.

Read more: New B.C. COVID-19 school exposures in 2021

The plan prioritizes age and medical vulnerability, and unless additional vaccines are secured, means frontline workers such as teachers and grocery store employees won’t get immunized ahead of anyone else in their age bracket.

In a statement Friday, the union said it was disappointed at the news, but acknowledged the province needed to prioritize saving lives.

Click to play video 'B.C. vaccination plan unveiled by health officials' B.C. vaccination plan unveiled by health officials
B.C. vaccination plan unveiled by health officials – Jan 22, 2021

“The vaccine supply limit is beyond our control and those among us who are most vulnerable of death and serious illness must be vaccinated first, it said.

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“Hopefully more vaccines are approved and this immunization strategy will be appropriately adjusted and accelerated.”

Click to play video 'VCH finds COVID-19 transmission in schools is low. What does that mean for schools in Fraser Health?' VCH finds COVID-19 transmission in schools is low. What does that mean for schools in Fraser Health?
VCH finds COVID-19 transmission in schools is low. What does that mean for schools in Fraser Health? – Jan 15, 2021

However, with many teachers now expecting to get vaccinated between May and August, the union says the province must address some of its long-standing concerns about COVID-19 safety in schools.

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Those complaints include the lack of a school-wide mask mandate, classroom size and density and ventilation.

“There is no denying that teachers are stressed, anxious, and even afraid. We do not have the layers of protection in our schools that exist in other environments,” the union said.

Read more: 20K sign petition calling on B.C. to delay return to school by 2 weeks

“Schools need the same safety measures as every single other workplace. This government and school districts must do more.”

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Julia MacRae, president of the Surrey Teachers Association, told Global News that many instructors in the district are in their 50s or 60s, meaning the age-based rollout isn’t all bad.

The district is among the hardest hit by the pandemic, due to high levels of community transmission in Surrey and the Fraser Health region in general.

MacRae said given the uneven distribution of COVID, the province should also be willing to look at increased protection for teachers in districts like hers — particularly given crowding in Surrey schools.

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Transparency in B.C. school data surrounding COVID-19 transmission – Jan 14, 2021

“Where the COVID is worse is where things need to change urgently,” she said.

“If COVID is out of control or very worrisome in one community, schools are part of the community, very intimately part of the community with children, parents coming back and forth … We’re not immune from COVID and we need more protection.”

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In a statement, the Ministry of Education said it had upgraded 5,800 hand hygiene or washing stations, and upgraded 45,283 air or ventilation filters, since the start of the pandemic.

It argued schools are different from a grocery store or other retail environment, where strangers are free to come and go, and said masks are required in high-traffic areas such as school hallways.

Read more: B.C. teachers’ union calls for 15-student cap in Fraser Health region schools

Provincial health officials maintain that while there may have been hundreds of exposures in B.C. schools, actual transmission of the virus remains rare.

Recent data from Vancouver Coastal Health found COVID-19 transmission occurred in fewer than 10 per cent of exposures in a school setting.

At the province’s last modelling update in December, officials said transmission occurred in about 12.8 per cent of exposures in Fraser Health.

The United Food and Commercial Workers Union also weighed in on the new timetable Friday.

UFCW local 1518 president Kim Novak said the union remained optimistic its 24,000 members could still be vaccinated in phase three of the province’s four-phase program.

“For a lot of people who have been going into the grocery store or for our members who work in food processing plants, they’ve been the ones who have been feeding British Columbians and Canadians throughout this pandemic,” Novak said.

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“So any assurances that we can have for our members that they will be prioritized when more vaccines come in for their safety and for the safety of everyone they’re interacting with is very important.