1. Adopt measurable standards and count students as people. Measurable standards should be adopted at the provincial level and then carried out at the school or site level. Establish site-based room limits based on the size of rooms and the space required to provide adequate distancing between all people (including both students and educators). Establish ventilation requirements based on public health recommendations for similar workplaces. (Treat schools equally to other other workplaces and count students as people.) Require adequate PPE, especially given that teachers and students work indoors, close together, and for long periods of time. Use measurable standards and apply them in transparent and consistent ways at the local level, allowing for diversity as well (to address individual school and site needs).
2. Adapt schools to the above standards and establish site-based Student Safety and Equity Committees at every school or site. Mandate that the committees apply the above standards and guidelines at the site-level. Committees identify risks and hazards to student health due to COVID-19 and implement responsive measures. Train committee members on infectious disease control measures and provide resources to support the committees. Fund mitigation at the site-level – based on an equitable funding formula and needs-based assessments at the provincial- and/or district-level. (“Equitable” means prioritising resources for schools and communities with disproportionate levels of poverty, for schools with many English language learners, and for BIPOC students, Indigenous communities, English language learners, and for students who are disabled or otherwise marginalised.) Site-based committees identify needs and make recommendations to the Ministry (or the school district) for specific mitigation measures. These measures are then resourced or alternatives are provided based on evidence and priority. Establish structures and systems within the Ministry and districts to support and resource the requests/recommendations of the site-based committees. All measures are then assessed through an equity-lens, prioritising equitable access and inclusion to public education for all students and communities. Provision the needed resources to ensure safety at schools. Utilise the expertise of teachers and other school-based leaders.
3. Provide all students and educators with masks. Provide PPE (including N95 masks and face shields) where distancing is not possible or when otherwise required. Establish criteria, based on infection levels, community spread, and other factors, for making masks mandatory if required. Be transparent about this process and base decisions on evidence and data. This requires that population monitoring be transparent provincially and that health and education officials work collaboratively. It also requires treating schools as any other workplace and counting students as people.
4. Prioritise in-person instruction and provide individual accommodations to students, based on need. All students should be included and have the educational supports they need. Provide additional funds for adequate administration of this at the school and site level, including additional teachers responsible for supporting students with accommodations and for supporting students with other complex learning needs. Report to the site-based Student Safety and Equity Committee on levels of access, unmet needs of students, and required resources.
5. Work closely with local and provincial unions to negotiate flexible approaches that will keep students safe and provide in-person education. Build these collaborations into the structure – including by establishing formal ties between the site-based Student Safety and Equity Committees and local unions. Provide mutually agreed-to templates and protocols so that schools can be flexible without violating or undermining existing collective agreements or educational policies and directives. Make these measures expire routinely and provide mechanisms for renewal or improvement. Be explicit about the temporary and emergency nature of any and all measures.
6. Continue to support Occupational Health and Safety Committees and continue to meet OH&S standards. Apply the same standards to schools as for other workplaces and include students in counts and measures (such as in room density levels). (In other words, count students as people.) Support collaboration between Occupational Health and Safety Committees and Student Safety and Equity Committees. Continue to provide teachers and other educators with accommodations due to COVID-19 and related medical or health needs.
7. Build structures to support collaboration between public health and public education. In addition to supporting site-based Student Safety and Equity Committees, provincial standards and guidelines, and site-based Occupational Health and Safety Committees, public health should establish formal and ongoing collaborations with teachers and other school-based leaders. Given the importance of the public education system to student health and well-being, prioritise direct connections between public health and public education officials. Prepare for a longer than hoped for period during which COVID-19 is a factor in ensuring student health and safety at school. Hope for the best. Prepare for the worst. Do what’s required to keep schools safely open for all BC students and communities.
8. Recognise the paramount duty of schools and teachers to safeguard students’ rights to safety at school, students’ rights to equity, access, and inclusion in education, and the right of all employees to a safe workplace. Enshrine these rights in the structures, systems, and processes for responding to COVID-19. Make equity a structural priority, including through the Student Safety and Equity Committees and other measures aimed at protecting student health and equity at school.
by Tom Kertes