Patti Bacchus: Vaccinate teachers or close the damn schools

    1 of 5 2 of 5

      My husband and I have vaccine appointments booked for next week, and we’re thrilled about it. For us, it marks what we hope is the beginning of the end of this damndemic and a step toward being able to spend time with family and friends again.

      We’re grateful our turn is coming up, but we also wonder why those who have to take far greater risks than we do aren’t getting pushed to the front of the line, and by “those” I include people who work in B.C.’s public schools: teachers, support workers, janitor, and school administrators.

      I think of teachers like Shannon Dean, who tweeted Tuesday morning, “I feel sick with nerves as thirty 18–year-old students fill my room today.”

      Good grief, I’d be terrified to spend a day in a classroom like that, even with improved mask requirements.

      On Easter Monday, I heard B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix on the radio reminding people not to gather indoors, given the infectious so-called Brazilian COVID-19 variant that’s putting more and more otherwise healthy young people in intensive-care units. I shouted back at my radio, “What the fudge about schools?”—except I didn’t say fudge.

      Health Minister Adrian Dix.

      B.C. teachers had to fight for months just to get a reasonable mask mandate, similar to what has been in place in other jurisdictions since the beginning of the school year. We’re told the virus rarely transmits in schools, contrary to much of what we’ve all learned in the mass crash course in epidemiology we’ve all taken this year and everything any parent knows about colds and flu and schools.

      We’re told it’s not safe to have anyone who doesn’t live in our household come over and sit across the room for coffee and a visit but it’s safe for a bunch of teenagers to spend their days together, talking, eating, drinking, and so on. We’re wired to seek logic, and this one just doesn’t add up, despite assurances from our government and public health officials.

      Schools in some Ontario regions moved to remote learning this week

      Ontario teachers and parents are getting the same message from their provincial government: transmission in schools is rare and schools are safe.

      Local public health officers in hard-hit regions like Peel and Toronto apparently believe differently, however, and defied their provincial government’s direction to keep schools open (with the familiar refrain that schools are safe and in-school transmission is rare) by ordering schools to move to remote learning for the next two weeks.

      Some Ontario health officers recently defied their government and ordered schools closed and instituted remote learning for two weeks.

      Meanwhile, my inboxes filled up with B.C. school exposure notices this week, along with messages from my boomer friends about getting vaccinated at their local pharmacies.

      Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy every time I hear someone gets their shot. The more of us who get jabbed, the sooner this extended nightmare may end. On the other hand, I can’t help wondering why we older types—who can stay home and limit our contacts to masked grocery-store clerks behind plexiglass while we wear our KN95 masks (Costco is selling them)—get the vaccine before teachers and other school employees who have no choice about spending their days in crowded classrooms that may also be poorly ventilated.

      When I hear stories about restaurant owners who defiantly flout public health orders and appear in videos in large groups of unmasked customers and supporters, sending their kids to school with directions they are not to wear masks, I get angry. Really angry. Your right to protest public health orders ends when you risk infecting other people’s kids, the people who teach them, and all their families.

      We can’t fix stupid and asinine (although I hope we fine them heavily and jail them if necessary), but we can do a lot more to keep school employees and students safer. If we can’t get vaccine into the arms of school employees faster, perhaps we need to move back to remote learning for a few weeks, or at least until we can flatten our climbing curve, especially in districts with high infection rates.

      The virus is ruthless and its mutations are getting nastier. It’s taken a bunch of Canucks players off the ice, and doctors are raising the alarm about the pressure it’s putting on hospitals.

      Will local public health officers have to take matters into their own hands?

      Last week I wrote about the muddled mess of announcing that all B.C. students from grades 4 to 12 would be required to wear masks at school (previously only middle- and high-school students had to wear them but could take them off when seated at their desks). That move came after the head of the Fraser Health Authority, Dr. Victoria Lee, broke ranks with provincial health officials by ordering an expanded mask mandate for Surrey schools, which have high numbers of COVID-19 “exposures.”

      Dr. Victoria Lee, president and CEO of Fraser Health.

      How many of those school exposures caused transmission in schools? I’d sure like to know, but for some reason our provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, and her team don’t share that information with us. Instead we get virtual pats on the heads that schools are safe and transmission is rare, which I find increasingly hard to believe.

      Dr. Lee’s Surrey schools mask order put pressure on Henry and the  government to expand the mask mandate to other school districts, which was ultimately done by Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside after much mealy-mouthed mumbo jumbo about mask “guidance” and “support” from our top doc, who declined to make it an order.

      Now some are wondering if Dr. Lee or any of her counterparts in regional health authorities will do what those in Toronto and the Peel region have done: order temporary school closures and a move back to remote learning.

      I wouldn’t count on that happening, but it’s possible. The good news is that Surrey’s school-based staff were prioritized for vaccine. There were plans to give all frontline education workers their shots until federal concerns about the safety of the AstraZeneca vaccine for people under 55 led B.C. to redirect those doses to 55- to 65-year-olds in areas with higher infection rates.

      Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry (left) and Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside.

      That left school staff outside Surrey out of the vaccine equation, although some have been driving from their districts to Surrey to try to get shots as well.

      Good gravy. First we force them to work in full schools where kids don’t have to wear masks for seven months and keep them in “stage two” of government’s education-restart plan (stage one is normal operating with no limits on cohort sizes, and stage five is fully remote). Stages three and four offer hybrid versions with vastly reduced “density targets” and a mix of in-person and remote learning.

      With cases reaching record highs, one wonders what it would take to move to stages three or four. I’d suggest we’re overdue, at least in districts that are racking up dozens of COVID-19 exposure notices each week.

      I’m all for schools being open as much as is safe. I don’t know, however, what the point was for bureaucrats to create a nice five-stage plan if they’re not going to use it. What I don’t agree with is those who work in schools having to risk their and their families' lives each day they go to work.

      For goodness' sakes, if we’re going to keep schools open while more infectious variants are making younger people very sick, bump those who work in them to the front of the vaccine line, and let we olds stay home a bit longer as we wait for our jabs.

      If we don’t do that, either close the damn schools or at least move to stage three or four of the government’s own plan, which would go a long way to reduce the obvious risks in schools.