A path forward for safely reopening BC schools

Public education is essential. It is essential for students’ education and well-being. It is essential for supporting families. And it is essential for the economy and society at large. That is why we invest billions of dollars every year in our public education system. It’s also why safely providing education to all BC students, especially during COVID-19, is a “must do” assignment for government.

How can public education be safely provided for all BC students and communities?

Safely reopening schools during this pandemic is possible. We can do this by adopting three guiding principles.

  1. Student and staff safety must be protected.
    Adapt schools and classrooms to COVID-19 – by putting in place protective measures. School-based leaders must lead on this. Government must provide additional funding to ensure that these measures are in place and effective.
  2. COVID-19 must be contained.
    Contain the virus – so that families and communities are safe by following public health containment measures, such as testing and contact tracing. Schools and public health officials must work together on this.
  3. Individual accommodations must be provided.
    Recognize the right to individual accommodations for students and staff alike – by putting in place systems that will support accommodations for students and staff alike, and that provide options for families. Families, teachers, and schools must work together in partnership on this.

Put protective measures in place and establish site-based Joint Student Safety and Equity Committees.

Student and staff safety requires that protective measures be put in place and followed. For staff, existing systems are already in place to advance this principle, such as WorkSafeBC, occupational health and safety committees, and employees’ right to refuse unsafe work. We should work through these systems and make them stronger and responsive to the reality of COVID-19. For students, the role of protecting student safety at school is generalized. It is embedded into the professional roles of teachers and principals and into the operational assumptions that guide all school decisions. Given that we are in a public health emergency, more is required.

Schools should establish, at the direction of the Ministry of Education, joint student safety and equity committees. Like joint occupational health and safety committees, these site-based committees would be mandated to prepare schools for COVID-19 safety. This will put student safety into decision making, holding the system to account and enabling site-specific issues to be addressed. Protective measures for these committees to put in place should include barriers, ventilation, screening, distancing, room densities, specific cleaning frequencies, hand washing measures, and requiring the the use of masks, face shields, and PPE as needed.

Put containment measures in place.

In addition to protective measures, containment measures must be put in place. The job of schools is to protect student health and safety. The job of public health is to contain the virus, maintain the health care system, and advise government on the epidemiology of the pandemic. These roles are complementary. Both protection and containment are required for public safety in schools. This requires working together and respecting the professional roles of teachers, public health officials, and principals. Containment measures, like contact group tracing, should not come in place of protective measures. Students and staff rely on schools to keep them safe. This goes beyond the mandate of public health in many instances but is absolutely part of the public education mandate. Government should recognize its obligation to protect students at schools and listen to the actual experts who know how to do this: Teachers and principals.

Provide accommodations for students and staff and provide the option of at-home learning supports for the students who need them.

Finally, the right of accommodation, based on medical or other need, should be recognized and supported. Even with protective adaptions and containment measures in place, there will be students and staff who will require additional accommodations. Families with older family members at home, students and staff with underlying medical conditions, and all BC students and families who require accommodations should have options in place. The Ministry of Education should support the provision of accommodations and options, enabling schools and local districts to provide options for families. This will keep schools open for all students, keep all students safe, and keep all students connected to their schools. Teachers can be assigned either in-class or remote teaching assignments, with teachers who require accommodations providing supports for students at home.

Working together, schools can be safely reopened, students and staff can be protected, and communities can be supported during COVID-19.