COVID-19: B.C. elementary-school teachers infected at triple the rate of secondary teachers

BCTF president thanks province for prioritizing educators and staff for vaccine but demands better safety measures in schools

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      B.C.'s elementary-school teachers have been contracting the COVID-19 virus at three times the rate of secondary teachers, according to WorkSafeBC occupational-claims data.

      Teachers' representatives are using this data to resume calls for mask-wearing in elementary schools.

      Updated (March 11) B.C. provincial health and safety guidelines state the following regarding mask use in schools: "Elementary school students are not required to wear masks and it remains a family decision." (Boldface in original text.)

      According to the same guidelines, students in middle and secondary schools must wear masks indoors at schools except when eating, drinking, or standing or sitting at their seats or workstations.

      A March 16 B.C. Teachers' Federation (BCTF) bulletin said that as of March 11 this year, 25 work-related COVID-19 infection claims had been approved by the provincial workplace health and safety agency for those teaching grades 8 to 12.

      By comparison, 80 such claims had been approved during the same time period for teachers of kindergarten to Grade 7.

      “The discrepancy in infection rates truly underscores the importance of mask-wearing in classrooms,” BCTF president Teri Mooring said in the March 16 release. “Elementary schools aren’t subject to any mask mandates for students, unlike our secondary schools. The lack of transparent data about transmission in schools means we can only guess that the lack of masks is leading to more infections among elementary teachers.”

      Mooring also called on parents of elementary-school children to talk to their kids about the urgency of wearing masks for the benefit of all.

      “The public health officer and government seem to be holding firm with their current mask mandates, so while we continue to advocate for stronger measures, we also need to rely on parents to talk to their children about the importance of wearing a mask for everybody’s safety."

      In November 2020, B.C. premier John Horgan told reporters that "the evidence is fairly clear that children are not transmitters” in schools.

      “We have demonstrated that we can operate our K-12 system safely," Horgan continued. "There are isolated outbreaks but, again, we have to put all of this in context. We are living with COVID-19 in our community. Adults working within the K-12 system are bringing the virus into the classroom and into schools and that’s led to outbreaks in pockets of British Columbia.”

      Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has stated publicly that schools are a "low-risk setting" for transmission and that mask-wearing can be "counterproductive" for young children.

      During a February 4, 2021, teleconference, B.C. education minister Jennifer Whiteside downplayed the importance of masks in schools by emphasizing other preventive measures, such as washing hands, that are effective in combination to prevent transmission of the novel coronavirus. “It is critical to remember that masks do not prevent the spread of COVID-19 on their own,” she said.

      The BCTF bulletin noted WorkSafeBC COVID-19 claim-acceptance language—"claims are allowed when the evidence is sufficient to establish the worker has COVID-19 and the risk in the workplace was significantly higher than the ordinary exposure risk”—when it reported that elementary-teachers' claims have been accepted at a rate of 89 percent compared to a 74 percent acceptance rate for registered and psychiatric nurses.

      Meanwhile. Mooring and the BCTF welcomed the March 18 announcement by the province that prioritized B.C. teachers and school staff for COVID-19 vaccinations in the next phase of the vaccine rollout but renewed the call for increased safety measures in schools.

      "I cannot express how thankful I am to our teachers and support staff for their commitment and compassion during this difficult year," Mooring said in a March 18 release. "Every single one of you deserves and needs stronger safety measures from your employers. I hope the news about vaccine prioritization will help ease anxiety and finally keep you all safe."

      Mooring also praised B.C.'s education minister in the bulletin: "While we wait for more details and timelines over the next few days, I also want to thank the new Minister of Education Jennifer Whiteside, who has been working hard with the BCTF to bring about important changes for our members and schools."