Surrey Teachers demand urgent action in response to leaked BCCDC documents

SURREY teachers said on Monday that documents leaked to the Vancouver Sun from the BCCDC last week illustrated just how rampant COVID-19 is in the community that they serve. Information previously kept from the public in these documents show that, although the positivity rate from COVID-19 tests in most of Fraser Health was 20% during the week of April 23 – 29, in the northwest quadrant of Surrey the positivity rate was above 20%.

This quadrant is the location for 26 schools: three secondary and 23 elementary.

During that same week, the 26 schools in that area alone had 105 exposure notifications, and five elementary classes and 132 other individuals (staff and students) were sent into isolation. During the same week the whole district had 9 classes, mostly K-4, and 589 individuals sent into isolation.

When a child is sent into isolation at home because of a COVID-19 exposure at school it can cause major disruption to the family, as child care must be provided, and the child may not be able to continue with a program of schooling, especially if the rest of the class is carrying on in-person, said the teachers.

Matt Westphal, President of the Surrey Teachers’ Association, said that when people see numbers like that, they may not understand what that looks like in classrooms and in schools, in the lives of teachers and students in that area.

Westphal has heard from many teachers in these schools, and from schools all over the district, that the distress and anxiety among the schools’ communities is palpable.

“A teacher told me they can’t social distance in their Kindergarten class,” he said. “They have circular tables with no other option, so the kids face each other all day. The teacher tries to encourage students to wear masks, but don’t have a mandate to back them up. When kids get sick at school, their parents struggle to get them tested. Teachers send sick kids home weekly, and they often return without being tested because so many in the community can’t afford to take time off work. One parent told a teacher that they can’t get their child tested because the parent has an injury, and they have no car. She can’t possibly walk her sick child, who struggles with behaviour, to get a bothersome, if not painful, medical test.”

Westphal added: “Many teachers have lost count of the exposure notifications they’ve had at their schools. Notices for the whole class to go into isolation disrupt the lives of teachers and students alike. Parents are left scrambling to find help with childcare as they cannot afford to take two weeks off work to stay at home with their child, and teachers have to find ways overnight to completely switch their lesson plans, or in some cases, try to provide both in person and remote teaching simultaneously.”

Teachers said they realize that the most effective solution is to have mass vaccinations in the community as was done in Whistler and Prince Rupert, but they know that local challenges such as language barriers and transportation exist. To overcome this, staff at one of the hardest hit schools in this community want to teach students how to help their parents to sign up to be vaccinated. Teachers have also suggested that high school students needing volunteer work experience could work with Fraser Health in communicating with their community.

Westphal said that teachers all across the school district are beyond exhausted at this point in trying to sustain the education of students when there have been 144 entire classrooms isolated since February 7, 2021, and 2733 individuals (staff and students) sent into self-isolation. Even though the school year is coming to an end, there are still seven weeks left during which positivity rates could remain high unless urgent action is taken.

Surrey Teachers are therefore demanding that the Ministry of Education immediately direct Surrey School District to:

  • Reduce class sizes to allow physical distancing
  • Implement a K-3 mask mandate
  • Provide more remote learning options for students afraid to attend school during the pandemic
  • Improve ventilation in classrooms and other workspaces by installing MERV 13 filters as per directions from BC CDC, and portable HEPA filters where this is not possible

“Students deserve to feel safe while they’re learning, and educators deserve to be safe while they’re working during this pandemic. Seven weeks of school left before summer is not too late to make changes that can still save lives,” Westphal said.

It’s incumbent on the Ministry of Education to ensure that overcrowded classrooms and antiquated ventilation systems do not endanger the health and safety of 75,000 students and staff in Surrey, said the teachers.