BCTF president blasts B.C.’s response as WorkSafeBC data shows COVID-19-related claims in schools

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BCTF calls for more local power to respond to pandemic
WATCH: The B.C. Teachers Federation is calling on local school districts to have more power to change rules and guidelines in response to local pandemic conditions. Richard Zussman reports – Feb 22, 2021

The president of the BC Teachers’ Federation says data from WorkSafeBC showing COVID-19-related claims in schools is a clear sign that in-school transmission is occurring — and needs to be acted on.

WorkSafeBC has allowed COVID-19-related claims from 123 workers in the education sector as of Feb. 19, a higher number than in any other sector except health care.

That’s according to data posted publicly on its website, where the agency says “claims are allowed when there is sufficient evidence to establish that the worker has COVID-19 and the risk in the workplace was significantly higher than the ordinary exposure risk.”

WorkSafeBC said where it made an allow/disallow decision related to a COVID-19 claim, 95 per cent are being approved — excluding cases in which the person did not actually have COVID-19.

By occupation, the data shows claims from 89 K-12 teachers were allowed, along with claims from 21 education assistants. 18 claims from teachers were disallowed, along with 30 claims by education assistants.

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“Most of the disallowed claims are ‘exposure only’ — that is, the worker was potentially exposed, tested, and/or required to self-isolate, but didn’t actually develop the illness,” the website reads.

BC Teachers’ Federation president Teri Mooring told Global News the data provides a valuable — but incomplete — picture of what’s actually happening in schools.

“This gives us a window into school transmissions. Why are we relying on a window like this into in-school transmissions, when we know government and the provincial health office have this information, they’re just not willing to share it publicly?” she said.

“Why is it that we can get data from WorkSafe, and yet we can’t get data from the provincial health office or government? It’s really becoming clear that this data is necessary.”

The province has often pointed to privacy concerns as a reason why they can’t regularly release disaggregated data, or geographical data, or information on school exposures.

“I would classify the things that we’ve heard so far as ‘excuses’ for not giving data,” Mooring said.

“If Ontario, and Quebec, and Manitoba, and Alberta can all produce data and the data that we’re looking for, specifically the education sector, why is it that B.C. cannot and why is it that B.C. will not produce this public data?”

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Click to play video: 'Surrey teachers rally for schools affected by exposures'
Surrey teachers rally for schools affected by exposures

Mooring said despite reassurances from B.C.’s top public health officials that in-school transmission is rare in the province, the data from WorkSafeBC shows that at least 123 workers in the education sector contracted COVID-19.

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She said that makes it all the more frustrating that the province is not willing to implement stricter health measures in classrooms.

At a Monday press conference to discuss exposures to the B.1.1.7 COVID-19 variant at seven schools in the Fraser Health region reported over the weekend, education minister Jennifer Whiteside repeatedly characterized B.C.’s safety guidelines for schools as “robust”, and said the province was not considering changes at this time.

When asked three times by different reporters if the ministry was considering allowing individual districts to implement their own safety measures, Whiteside didn’t directly answer.

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But Mooring said teachers still haven’t been told why additional measures shouldn’t be implemented.

We have been given no rationale as to why they have such a lax mask mandate right now in B.C. There is no rationale being given as to — why not have children wear masks? What are the risks to children wearing masks? We have not been given that information.

Mooring has been calling for a mandatory mask mandate since the beginning of the school year, and she said she doesn’t understand why the measures we’ve all been told to take in other public or crowded spaces don’t apply to schools.

“We have 30 students in classrooms and when they’re sitting at their desks, they are not office workers sitting alone in an office. They are sitting shoulder to shoulder with other students,” she said.

“Having students take off their masks when they’re sitting at their desk makes no sense — if you actually work in schools.”

Mooring suggested that public health officials, including provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, deputy provincial health officer Dr. Reka Gustafson, and Whiteside, don’t have a clear picture of what schools actually looked like.

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She said she’s not aware whether any of them have personally visited a classroom with 30 students inside to determine for themselves whether physical distancing is possible.

“When non-educators are making decisions for educators based on very little information about the reality that educators face in classrooms, it is extraordinarily frustrating.”

Click to play video: 'B.C. officials reassure parents, students and staff after COVID-19 variants found in seven schools'
B.C. officials reassure parents, students and staff after COVID-19 variants found in seven schools

Also frustrating, Mooring said, was Minister Whiteside’s response on Monday to a reporter who asked what the province was doing to support teachers who are experiencing high levels of stress and burnout during the pandemic.

Whiteside said the province is working with its partners in education to build more mental health supports for teachers.

“I am very aware educators didn’t expect to find themselves at the front lines of a pandemic,” she said.

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But Mooring said her members have said in surveys that their stress is directly related to the perceived lack of health and safety measures in their workplaces.

And so the the best support for teacher mental health right now is to better support those health and safety measures, because right now the complete burden is on teachers. Teachers need to develop a culture of mask working in their classrooms. Teachers have to encourage students to wear masks at their desks,” she said.

“This is a lot of additional stress on teachers. And what we were hoping is that we would have more support from the provincial government, the provincial health office, by having stronger guidelines that we could rely upon. Instead, though, teachers are having to shoulder that entire burden themselves. It’s been completely downloaded onto classroom teachers, and that’s where the stress is coming from.

Mooring agreed that her language in interviews has become a lot stronger than in the past and she said it’s a reflection of her frustration.

“We’ve been calling for these additional health and safety measures all along. We’ve been calling for the data to be shared. And I have to say, some of the recent comments from the provincial health office and from government have been extraordinarily frustrating. Teachers are frustrated.”

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She calls the continued reluctance by the province to make any significant changes to measures “extremely troubling” with variants of concern now in play in B.C. schools.

That’s what we’ve been asking for months and months and months,” she said.

“Why, when it’s our teachers and our children, are we not acting with an abundance of caution?”

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