Why teachers and students should be provided with masks, N95 respirators, face shields, and other PPE now

Teachers, other staff, and students need PPE to ensure a safe reopening of schools in British Columbia.

When I wrote a letter a couple of weeks ago to the BCTF Executive Committee requesting that the BCTF take the lead in developing professional standards for teachers and public schools, I did this for two reasons.

First, I believe that the BCTF should lead as a union of professionals. We are the sole professional body of public education teachers in British Columbia. During a crisis, like the COVID-19 pandemic, the profession, through the BCTF, should lead on all educational issues, including how to protect students and teachers at schools.

Second, the BCTF has the capacity in terms of excellent research and policy staff who can base the professional standards that we develop on scientific evidence, the body of professional knowledge that’s reflected in teachers’ practices, and collaboration with associated professional bodies.

While the BCTF does have this capacity, I don’t. That’s why we need the BCTF to be driving this process forward as a union of professionals.

I am one teacher, working in a middle school in northern British Columbia. While I have worked in policy for a self-regulatory college of educators (in Ontario), I have no training or experience in occupational health and safety, epidemiology, or infectious diseases.

I therefore recommended to the BCTF that we, together, harness our collective knowledge and expertise to develop policies based on what teachers know and do. I do have expertise in doing that – being a teacher – but I am not a health expert. Like any teacher, I am a teaching expert instead.

In light of our union’s collective decisions to forgo many proactive responses to the government’s direction on COVID-19 and schools, and to not yet develop our own standards, I left am with the worst option: To try to figure it out on my own.

My sense that I am not alone in this, as teachers all share a certain expertise in being devalued and under-resourced. We often just have to “make it up as we go along” – and it is looking like that still applies on many issues related to COVID-19. In this, we are truly in it together.

While I wish that the BCTF had taken, and will take, another position on its role to lead, I don’t want it to seem like everything is bad. It’s not. At my school teachers and administrators are working collaboratively and making lots of things work. Much of this work is being supported by the local and provincial union.

As a school, we are being flexible in using spaces to spread people out and we are working together to support all students and all staff, as best we can. I see this often and I deeply appreciate it every time I see it. I am very fortunate to work at a school with strong leadership – at all levels and by all roles in the school.

But there are limitations to what we can do on our own, especially when resources and materials are required. The government needs to provide these resources. A single school in the system has no other means to get what’s needed.

What teachers and students need to stay safe at school.

I have been hesitant to state what I think is required, in terms of specific resources to protect teachers, at this point, given that to do this I must reach beyond my scope of expertise.

But since these issues affect me directly, as I am in the school doing the actual work that puts me at risk to exposure, I have no choice but to at least try to figure out what to ask for from my employer, union, and government.

At this point, what I need (that is not being provided already) is an N95 respirator mask and a face shield. Students need protective measures as well and should be included in this conversation. Let me explain why (in the reasoning outlined below).

Why I think N95 masks, face shields, and other PPE are essential for schools now:

From what I have heard from the government’s public health officials is the following: First, I am an essential worker. This means that I should go to work, rather than work at home. On this I agree. To the extent possible, and to which this can be done safely, schools should be open for students and for in-person instruction. Education is essential.

I also understand that there are supports available to essential workers, given that we are expected to take risks by working in-person during the pandemic. On this, I also agree. Essential workers should be supported and protected.

Because I am a teacher, my essential job puts me in close proximity with many other people, in enclosed spaces (often with poor or no ventilation, like my windowless classroom with no HVAC system), for long durations of time, and I work in a job that is not easily conducive to physical distancing.

To be an effective and supportive teacher, I work in close proximity often with students in the enclosed space of a classroom. I work with adults and teens for long periods of time. Other teachers work with adults, young adults, teens, children, and young children.

I believe that the main message from public health has been that we should stay two metres from others, if possible. And if we cannot do this, then we should wear a non-medical cloth mask. This advice seems to apply in many contexts but is specifically not applied to one context: Schools.

I am not sure why this is, given that schools are enclosed spaces, where people work in close proximity, and for long durations of time. But at least teachers and students are allowed to wear masks, as a matter of personal choice. And that allowance seems to be where the government’s position on the matter ends.

Another message that I have come to understand is that the point of wearing a non-medical cloth mask is mainly to protect the other people around you, in case you are infected and are spreading the virus by coughing, sneezing, speaking, or singing.

(This may be why there is no requirement for teachers to wear non-medical cloth masks, since it would not provide direct occupational health and safety to the wearer, even if it does reduce the spread to those around the teacher, such as other educators and students.)

But there are two things that do protect the wearer. These are face shields and N95 respirator masks. My understanding is that these provide protection to the essential worker, who is less likely to become infected (and, I assume, to infect others), when using a face shield and an N95 respirator. These are therefore essential for essential workers who must work in close proximity to others to do their jobs.

I started by saying that I am not an expert on infectious diseases. So please, let’s stop here for a moment to reflect:

  • Am I correct that teachers are essential workers?
  • Do essential workers require supports and protections so that they can keep doing their essential jobs?
  • Do teachers work in close proximity to people of all ages and with members of the public, for long durations or time and in enclosed spaces (often with limited or no ventilation)?
  • Do teachers work in contexts that make physical distancing difficult, if nearly impossible, to maintain or enforce?
  • Do N95 masks protect the wearer?
  • Do face shields protect the wearer?

How can there be data on the spread of COVID-19 in Canadian schools at this point in the pandemic?

I am also not an expert on public health research methods or epidemiology, but I am wondering how much research on schools in Canada during this pandemic there can be, given that schools in Canada have been closed to in-person instruction for much of the pandemic.

That makes me wonder if the reason for a lack of data that supports the need, or benefit, to teachers wearing N95 respirators and face shields is because we have not had the time or means to collect that data.

At the same time, I wonder what data we would need, given that the question for teachers is not one of epidemiology but of workplace hazards and risks. Since teachers are essential workers, a high standard of protection should be provided.

Education is an essential service because it matters so much for children and communities.

As teachers, we are providing an essential service, education. Since education is provided in schools during the workday of many parents or guardians, teachers also provide the added benefit of child care for many families. And since many students have come to rely on schools for breakfast, lunch, exercise, and mental health supports, our service is all the more important to society.

I am proud to provide an essential service. I support in-person instruction, when it is provided safely and fairly for both educators and students alike. By providing teachers an N95 respirator mask and a face shield and PPE for students, the return-to-school is more likely to succeed.

That benefits students and society. But teachers, and other educators, have a right to be safe at school, just as students do, no matter the benefit to society. Saving money, providing child care, and gaining benefits are not justifications for failing to protect the health of teachers and students in schools.

Teachers and students should be provided with PPE, and this should include N95 respirators and face shields for teachers.

Based on what I have come to understand, as I explained above, for those teachers who can return to work, we should be provided with N95 respirators and face shields if we are required to return to in-person schooling. For those teachers who cannot return to work, they should be provided with accommodations by their employer.

I am open to “not getting it” on any of this (as I said, I am not expert on public health). But I will need evidence for why teachers should not have the protections of N95 masks and face shields, which will need to based on what teachers know about the nature of our jobs, the level of risks that we experience, and the fact that our work is deemed essential. My profession’s lens should be applied to logic of whether or not, and how, schools are reopened.

Teachers work with individuals, not averages or statistical models.

Unlike the public health official or the epidemiologist, I am not interested in statistical predictions across the population. For occupational health and safety, I am interested in a population of one: Me. For student well-being, I am interested in the health and well-being of the population of every student in my classroom.

It does not matter if “only” 10% of the students will be infected. Those two students will be individuals that I have been entrusted to protect. Teachers don’t work with averages or models. We work with individuals, each of whom is a member of our school and class communities.

The risk that I take by going to teach is a risk that I will experience myself. Even though most people infected with the virus that causes COVID-19 end up just fine, it is impossible for me to know if that will apply to me. The risk is personal. Therefore, the support must be personal, too.

That is why I call on the BCTF to do what it takes to ensure that every teacher is provided with a N95 respirator and a face mask, that all students are provided with PPE, or that the government prove to teachers and schools that there is no risk by not having these resources provided to us.