Martyn Brown: In B.C. schools, COVID preys on those cowed into silence

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      It is a very sick world, indeed, that obliges teachers, parents, students, and school support workers to literally fight for their lives in trying to convince those responsible for protecting their health to do better.

      Welcome to British Columbia, where, but for good luck and the sound safety measures that have been thus far implemented, there have been at least 31 to 35 COVID-19 "exposures" in B.C. schools. Mercifully, with no officially reported coronavirus "outbreaks" or "clusters".

      That, despite the glaring inadequacies that hang like the sword of Damocles over all those who legitimately fear they are not being sufficiently protected from that deadly scourge. 

      In my last article critiquing "The lunacy of B.C.’s half-baked school 'safety' regime", I concluded with these words: 

      “Time to play hardball. The [Labour Relations Board] appeal is only a smart baby step. 

      "Calling all teachers, parents, students, and other concerned citizens: our schools must be made safer. Now.”

      More specifically, it’s now time to take job action, in protest of how teachers’ pleas for more potent action have largely fallen on deaf ears.

      That problem has been further compounded by Premier John Horgan’s decision to thrust our province into a dangerously irresponsible, innately dishonest, and widely unwanted snap election.

      God knows the last thing we need is yet another potential vector for COVID infections from the untold mass of voters who will now cast their ballots at polling sites in B.C.’s schools.

      Thank you, Premier Capitalist—not—for that most unwelcome, untimely and inopportune “learning experience” that you supposedly “agonized over” (with your 17-point lead in the polls) and imposed, to “help” B.C. voters reward your government with a massive majority.

      Sure good to have “friends” like you in high places, many teachers must be now thinking to themselves, in dismay and disappointment.

      Yet if teachers are serious about forcing the powers that be to listen and act on their school safety concerns and appeals, they already hold all the political power they need to get the results the B.C. Teachers Federation has been seeking all summer long.

      Individual teachers hold the power in their own hands to expedite most of what they are hoping to achieve through their union’s LRB appeal.

      Apparently, the BCTF union brass isn’t so keen on that advice, judging from some of the tweets issued by teachers in defiance of those who would prefer they not rock the NDP’s ethically vulnerable election boat.

      Some teachers have even suggested in social media that they have been warned not to ramp up their vocal efforts to make decision-makers think twice about continuing to ignore their cries for more help.

      I don’t know if it is true or false that anyone has been threatened with being reprimanded for stepping outside the union’s decidedly measured and politically restrained message box and strategy. 

      I am not aware of any media reports to that effect, so perhaps the BCTF has near-universal buy-in from its members for its modest efforts to bring the government to heal.

      Perhaps the vast majority of teachers are actually content with B.C.’s COVID track record two weeks into the school year, in comparison to what has transpired in other provinces, as the Straight’s Martin Dunphy has recently documented.

      But I do find it more than passing strange that the BCTF hasn’t been more assertive in forcing the government to address teachers’ legitimate concerns for better protection in classrooms, including through greater transparency.

      BCTF president Teri Mooring’s media comments have been compelling and artfully delivered, typically in reaction to reporters’ probing about emerging concerns. But the frequency and volume of her targeted criticisms has clearly not worked as intended.

      Is it just me, or does anyone else wonder why the BCTF hasn’t done more to ramp up political pressure on Horgan and Dr. Bonnie Henry to compel them to better protect everyone attending or working in B.C. schools?

      In fact, I’m beginning to wonder if maybe I should re-evaluate my initial take on the BCTF’s LRB appeal. 

      I’m wondering if it might actually be part of some greater political strategy to avoid having to directly challenge the Horgan government in the midst of its unconscionable election. 

      Surely not!

      Far be it from the BCTF to give voice to its concerns through the LRB’s tortuously lengthy bureaucratic “cone of silence”, muffling those screaming for action who have no qualms about elevating their fight to the next political level.

      Still, how convenient for the NDP’s allies in the BCTF to not be driven to harsher political measures in taking their case to the public, as long as they can point to the LRB appeal as their chief effort in progress. 

      Good luck to them and Godspeed, I say. Or better yet, enough of the pussy-footing.

      BCTF president Teri Mooring has gone to the Labour Relations Board to push the province to introduce more safety measures in schools.

      Double standards are glaringly obvious 

      It should be clear to everyone by now that “playing nice” is no way to get either the government’s or Henry’s undivided attention in acting to address the glaring inadequacies in B.C.s Back to School Plan.

      Only a slow learner would not now understand the central lesson that the BCTF’s too obliging cooperative approach should have taught all teachers by this point.

      Namely, that one can be too kind in staying too calm for their own good in staying safe, in the face of this silent killer virus.

      Sorry, Dr. Henry, but the “safety” regime you and B.C.’s health leaders have prescribed for B.C. schools is as leaky as an ill-fitting homemade mask. And equally as dangerous.

      Which is to say, it is not to be relied upon with any confidence as a sufficiently suitable first line of defence in keeping educators and students safe.

      It is rather an ill-stitched patchwork of fine enough fabric that doesn’t quite fit as need be for the task at hand.

      One that reflects too many compromises, too much penny-pinching, and too many dubious double standards that are maddening and hard to fathom.

      The double standard on masks is only one painful bone of contention.

      In what sick world is it not fine to sit unmasked on buses, or to ignore mask requirements in other closed public or private spaces. And yet, it is supposedly A-OK for kids to sit a few feet apart from one another in classrooms, sometimes 30 or more at a time?

      Forgive me if I have trouble accepting Henry’s assurances that we should all embrace that double standard as a reasonable risk for children, ostensibly, because they can’t be trusted not to fiddle with their masks and they might find it distracting to wear one.

      Not that that argument carries any weight on planes.

      Try going unmasked on any flight and you’ll be grounded and probably fined, prosecuted, or otherwise punished. Kids have to wear them too. 

      But not in class, because those who “know best” say they “won’t work.” 

      Who cares if Ontario has made masks mandatory for all students in Grades 4 to 12, including in classrooms? 

      Who cares if other jurisdictions insist on a similar policy, where it is working well, in so many countries in Europe and Asia?

      How can we possibly justify that “masks aren’t needed” claim, when so many global health experts, like Dr. Anthony Fauci and Dr. Robert Redfield, the [U.S.] director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are now urging all citizens to wear masks? 

      Let me reiterate Redfield’s conclusion: 

      "I might even go so far as to say that this face mask is more guaranteed to protect me against COVID than when I take a COVID vaccine, because it may be 70 percent. And if I don't get an immune response, the vaccine is not going to protect me … This face mask will."  [Emphasis added.]

      In other words, we’re now told, masks aren’t just to help stop infected people from spreading to others; rather, they are apparently beneficial after all in keeping their wearers safe. 

      Many of us suspected that all along, despite the ongoing insistence to the contrary from Canada’s top doc, Teresa Tam, from Bonnie Henry, and from so many of their health counterparts who have bought hook, line and sinker into the World Health Organization’s ever-changing direction.

      Yet that essential article of health protection, which Henry has so slowly come to concede “may be appropriate” in other closed spaces, is still deemed health protection overkill in B.C.’s classrooms.

      Not to worry, the health experts say. Schools are ensuring “safe” cohorts of 60 or 120 students, who nevertheless mingle more than they ever dare to monitor, prevent, or admit.

      More than a few parents and teachers have noted how students congregate in groups that burst those protective “bubbles” in school cafeterias, in school hallways and other grounds, and in walking home in bunches, too often without masks.

      Masks for everyone else in close contact, by all means. Just not for school kids in classroom cohorts that stand to provide too much false reassurance to parents and teachers alike.

      Or how about this double standard?

      Why is it that the new “mouth rinse and gargle” COVID-testing option for school-aged children is deemed sufficiently reliable for students, but not “appropriate” for teachers or other adults?

      Let alone when it is rendered to kids by people who may not be sufficiently qualified to test adults for COVID. Or given the dubious efficacy of that physically welcome new COVID testing alternative.

      Video: Learn more about the mouth, rinse, and gargle test.

      Level of secrecy is unjustifiable

      Surely if the government is confident enough in that new oral testing option for student guinea pigs, it should be at least available to teachers and other adults in those same work spaces. Whether or not they are symptomatic.

      Ditto for thermal checks.

      Why is it that the federal government has finally concluded that airlines are wise to insist on checking peoples’ temperature before boarding, as one more safeguard to minimize COVID exposure? While at the same time, that safety tool has been discounted as an appropriate additional precaution to keep everyone safe in schools?

      How does that make sense?

      Shhh. Bite your tongue. 

      No need to get your mercury rising by second-guessing those who scorn temperature screening as an imperfect measure to help keep people safe, especially in schools.

      Sometimes double standards are best singularly ignored. 

      And yet, as Robert Plant sang in "Stairway to Heaven", “Sometimes all of our thoughts are misgiven. Ooh, it makes me wonder.”

      I wonder, in what sick world does it make any sense to insist on social distancing of two metres except in schools and classrooms, where only one metre of physical separation is now supposedly “safe”, according to Bonnie Henry?

      In what sick world does it inspire any confidence to say it’s perfectly “safe” for anyone in classrooms to be kept deliberately in the dark that someone in their midst has been infected with COVID?

      That is, so long as they were seated maybe six feet apart and didn’t get too close to them. 

      Pardon me while I cough. Or puke. 

      What the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority did should be enough to make any parent or teacher nauseous.

      Trust us, it said, we’ll let you know through contact tracing whether or not your child or any teacher has been exposed to anyone has the virus. 

      Because we’re that good. Don’t let the interminable lineups at COVID testing stations convince you otherwise.

      Don’t worry your pretty little head about the odd student with COVID in your classroom. No need to alarm you, lest you panic and pull your child or children out of school. 

      Best to keep you in the dark like a mushroom, unless you or your child has been identified as someone who has been “exposed”. Until then, Carry On, like a corny British comedy.

      VCH didn’t think it is in the interests of students, parents, teachers, or anyone they touch to publicly post the list of schools impacted by COVID infections. 

      Why didn't the BCTF screaming bloody murder at the VCH for refusing to do as the Fraser Health Authority is doing, by posting notifications for all COVID school exposures?

      Why isn’t anyone aggressively pushing back on Dr. Henry for backstopping that outrageous double standard for Vancouver schools? 

      She says, “I have full confidence that Vancouver Coastal is doing what we need them to do.” 

      I say, that makes one of you. And that double standard is not defensible: it’s asinine.

      Dr. Bonnie Henry advised parents that it can be okay to send kids to school with a runny nose.

      Symptom pruning doesn't make sense

      Thank Christ there have not as yet been any school transmissions of the virus. 

      Yet it is only a matter of time until that changes.

      Why is it left to the likes of former Vancouver school board chair (and Straight K-12 education columnist) Patti Bacchus to forcefully lead the charge in protest of VCH’s secretive stance?

      And how can health minister Adrian Dix think it’s good enough for students, teachers and parents in his own backyard?

      British Columbians shouldn’t have to rely upon the work of the media to keep abreast of the bigger school COVID picture that too many of B.C.’s top health officials are doing their best to shroud and minimize.

      News 1130 legislative reporter @LizaYuzda has been posting regular updates to illuminate British Columbians in that regard.

      Thanks to her sleuthing, we now know that @VCHhealthcare has been “Essentially telling parents not to share info about exposures at their school.”

      Sickening, I submit. 

      Like the way that the daily health checklist for school-aged children was quietly cut from 18 identified symptoms to only seven.

      It was a sneaky alteration that the BCTF rightly outed, based on a flimsy rationale that Dr. Henry now assures is “appropriate” for kids in school, if not for adults in workplaces.

      Not that she has overlooked the adults in those workplaces populated by children, mind you.

      Buck up, little ponies. 

      No need to stay home from school just because you are not feeling well, contrary to everything we have been told since Day One.

      No need to avoid going to class or cover your face just because you have a sore throat, a runny nose or stuffy nose, a headache, muscle aches, confusion, abdominal pain, fatigue, loss of appetite, conjunctivitis (pink eye), skin rashes or discoloration of fingers or toes.

      Those symptoms in isolation probably aren’t cause for concern. 

      They might just suggest you have the flu, a cold, or any number of other ailments that adults are being strongly urged should be sufficient to keep them home and off work.

      Anyway, B.C.’s health officials now maintain, if you have COVID, you’ll probably also have one or more of those other seven symptoms still on B.C.’s shrinking checklist that only applies to children.

      Gag me with a spoon.

      I’ll tell you this: if it had been a B.C. Liberal government instead of Horgan’s NDP government that had tried to get away with keeping people so in the dark, there would have been bloody hell to pay, politically.

      I’ll bet former BCTF president Jenny Sims would have been rallying her union colleagues to the barricades in that alternative movie, if she wasn’t instead now running to be reelected as the NDP MLA in Surrey-Panorama.

      How she can tolerate her former cabinet colleagues’ failure to do what they really know is right for teachers and students in this instance is beyond me.

      No wonder so many teachers, parents, and students are scared to death. 

      Though not enough it would seem to rise up in serious protest, as so many others did for other worthy social causes in the last several months, COVID be damned.

      Are teachers really prepared to blithely tolerate being taken politically for granted by their professed “allies” in the NDP?

      Don’t they realize that they have more clout than ever—especially in this election—to shame Horgan into fixing the problems they have identified?

      On September 24, Vancouver Coastal Health's chief medical heath officer, Dr. Patricia Daly, issued a joint statement with Dr. Bonnie Henry.

      Silence won't save lives

      Let’s face it, the B.C. Centre for Disease Control’s COVID-19 Public Health Guidance for K-12 School Settings is at best a flawed effort-in-progress that is rife with silent shortcomings.

      Why should anyone simply accept that there is nothing we can do to oblige government to reduce class sizes during this health crisis, so as to allow for proper physical distancing?

      Why should educators or parent only wring their hands in silent frustration at being told they will have no standardized options for remote learning, with no dedicated staffing to help teachers to provide that essential education alternative?

      Why should anyone feel cowed into silence instead of loudly saying, enough! 

      It’s not good enough that there is still no standard requirement for all school districts to even equip all teachers with face shields, whatever the government’s boasting to the contrary.

      It’s not acceptable for school buses to be packed full of kids, still seated side-by-side, with no masks required for elementary school students of any age.

      It’s not acceptable for our health leaders to say there is no need for playground equipment to be cleaned. And instead, putting the sole onus on parents to ensure their kids wash their hands and not touch their faces after having their fun on slides, swings, monkey bars, or other such playground devices.

      It’s not acceptable that government is thumbing its nose at the BCTF’s appeals for schools and worksites to be retrofitted with physical barriers for safety, where physical distancing is not possible.

      Nor is it acceptable that the Horgan government still hasn’t properly acted on the BCTF’s appeals for “additional funding to ensure custodial cleaning of high touch surface areas are completed twice during the day, in addition to regular cleanings.”

      Teachers should be outraged that even now, despite their union’s best cooperative efforts, the Horgan government continues to resist and frustrate their request for “accommodations for teachers who are immunocompromised or have chronic health conditions.”

      In any normal election, John Horgan would be facing a daily gauntlet of protestors at campaign rallies and other events. 

      Including from those who are angry at how he abused all British Columbians’ trust by breaking his word and making a mockery of B.C.’s legislated fixed election date.

      If the tables were turned and it had been, say, Christy Clark or Gordon Campbell who had ever done what he has done, the BCTF would probably be front and center in protesting that duplicitous snap election in the midst of a global pandemic.

      Not this time out. 

      All teachers and parents need to step back and really think about how they are being manipulated into meek acceptance of the unacceptable, by dint of their well-meaning efforts to make the best of a very bad situation.

      In this instance, silence is only golden for Premier Capitalist, who hopes to capitalize on this health crisis in the worst possible way for partisan advantage.

      Especially in the context of this election, silence is not a virtue; it’s a prescription for avoidable added human misery and suffering.

      Much of which Terri Mooring could alter in an instant if she even so much as dared to endorse this column with a single tweet.

      I’m not holding my breath. 

      Effective as she is as the BCTF’s commander-in-chief, I’ll be shocked if Mooring does any such thing to really drive COVID school safety as the election issue it should be.

      I sure get that she doesn’t want to in any way unduly undermine Bonnie Henry’s laudable best efforts to lead us all through this unprecedented health crisis. 

      Nor do I. That is not the point of my pointed criticisms, aimed only at obliging her and Horgan to embrace those additional measures to protect kids, teachers, and school support workers that have too long been ignored or rejected.

      I also get the BCTF’s political predicament, not wanting to help elect Andrew Wilkinson’s B.C. Liberals in deposing Horgan’s NDP government.

      But sometimes, it is incumbent upon those elected to lead, to use their power and their pulpits to prove that resistance is not, in fact, futile.

      Speaking out now and even taking job action to impress upon the premier how serious they are need not be a self-defeating act.

      Rather, it should serve as a sure-fire way to bring about needed changes that have thus far been resisted, largely because the NDP has taken its support from B.C. teachers for granted.

      As Horgan has done with his dishonest repudiation of the GreeNDP partnership of the last 3 ½ years, he is also trying to unfairly take advantage of his party’s informal alliance with the BCTF, to the disadvantage of its members.

      Not good enough. 

      In B.C. schools, COVID preys on those cowed into silence.

      As they say in that other arena that once was jam-packed with Canucks fans, not content to sit on their hands as the “good guys” skate for all their worth: MAKE SOME NOISE!

      Because right now, it’s so quiet out there, you could hear a puck drop from up there in the nosebleed section (another symptom not to worry about!).

      And that’s a loser’s game if I’ve ever seen one.

      Martyn Brown was former B.C. premier Gordon Campbell’s long-serving chief of staff, the top strategic adviser to three provincial party leaders, and a former deputy minister of tourism, trade, and investment. He also served as the B.C. Liberals' public campaign director in 2001, 2005, and 2009, and in addition to his other extensive campaign experience, he was the principal author of four election platforms. Contact him via email at