Martyn Brown: The lunacy of B.C.’s half-baked school “safety” regime

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      Reading the B.C. Teachers' Federation’s September 17 appeal to the B.C. Labour Relations Board, only an idiot would have any confidence in the Horgan government’s woefully inadequate Back to School Plan.

      Although you would never know that from the government's bragging of its actions and of the fact that 85 percent of K-12 public school students returned for in-class learning.

      As if most parents or students had a choice, however unhappy and scared shitless they may be about the way that those centres for disease non-control are still being so poorly managed by the ultimate health powers that be in Victoria.

      Mostly because the government has refused to do what is so obviously really right and necessary to keep everyone as safe as possible. 

      You don’t have to be an "A" student or coronavirus expert to understand who is right and who is wrong in teachers’ frustrating fight to get the government to act on their urgent entreaty on behalf of everyone who sets foot in B.C. schools or is at risk from those who do.

      For students, teachers, school support workers, and everyone who they see, touch and otherwise closely contact every day, the NDP’s school reopening plan is a half-baked recipe for disaster.

      One that will inevitably leave blood on John Horgan’s and Dr. Bonnie Henry’s hands, unless they act now to correct their failings.

      Specifically, I refer all readers to the BCTF’s August 19 news release:

      “Here are the key health and safety concerns the BC Teachers’ Federation is asking the government to implement.

      • Classroom density reduced to allow for physical distancing.
      • An option for remote learning, especially for medically complex children or those who have a medically compromised close family member, that allows the child to remain connected to their school with access to the full range of supports and services. 
      • Dedicated funding for improvements to school ventilation and HVAC systems to ensure worksites meet or exceed COVID-19 requirements. 
      • All adults and students 10 years and older be required to wear face masks when physical distancing is not possible, as long as there is not a medical condition that prevents usage. 
      • Schools and worksites retrofitted with physical barriers for safety, where physical distancing is not possible.
      • Additional funding to ensure custodial cleaning of high touch surface areas are completed twice during the day, in addition to regular cleanings.
      • Accommodations for teachers who are immunocompromised or have chronic health conditions.”

      To date, none of those smart and reasonable recommendations have been really heeded, as the BCTF tried again to remedy through its September 14 letter to Education Minister Rob Fleming.

      Sadly, insofar as schools are concerned, the government continues to wear its COVID dunce cap proudly.

      Is it any wonder last Friday’s COVID update disclosed new exposures at five more schools?

      No mandatory masks in classrooms. Classrooms with 30 or more kids, not safely physically distanced. Packed buses with students still seated side-by-side. No standard requirement for all school districts to even equip all teachers with face shields. No standardized options for remote learning, or dedicated staffing to help facilitate that burden now unduly placed on teachers.

      This is lunacy, on so many levels.

      Premier John Horgan and Dr. Bonnie Henry have riled many teachers by not mandating masks in classrooms.

      B.C. rejects Ontario's approach

      Take the mask policy, for example.

      We all know that Bonnie Henry has been very passive, if not dismissive, on mandatory mask requirements from Day One.

      Taking her cue from her partners in the World Health Organization and from Canada’s top medical health officer, her evolution on mask policies has been a torturous and unconvincing conversion. 

      At least now Henry has now concluded that they “may be appropriate” in some circumstances, if not in classrooms.

      It was like pulling teeth to get her and the government to finally relent and recommend masks for public transit. 

      It was a months’-long struggle to convince her to finally require masks in some other public spaces where safe distancing was problematic, including in school corridors and other non-classroom spaces.

      But over and over again, she was and remains quick to remind us that wearing a mask is mostly a gesture of respect to keep others safe, not to protect mask wearers themselves.

      Even if you accept that dubious and fluid rationale, why would she not do as Ontario has mandated and invoke that added precautionary measure to keep kids and teachers safe in classrooms?

      Particularly in light of the new, new guidance on masks from the United States’ Centers for Disease Control director as reported on Friday (September 18) by CBC News.

      “Dr. Robert Redfield, the [U.S.] director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said during his testimony before a Senate subcommittee on Wednesday that wearing face masks may be more effective at protecting against COVID-19 than a vaccine.”

      Video: At a Senate hearing, Centers for Disease Control director Robert Redfield says face masks offer more protection than a vaccine against COVID-19.

      “I'm not going to comment directly about the president, but I am going to comment as the CDC director that face masks, these face masks, are the most important powerful public health tool we have," Redfield told the subcommittee. "And I will continue to appeal for all Americans, all individuals in our country, to embrace these face coverings."

      CBC continued: “Redfield said if Americans wore face masks for several weeks, ‘we would bring this pandemic under control,’ because there is scientific evidence they work and they are our ‘best defense.’ "

      "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," Redfield told U.S. legislators. "This face mask will." [Emphasis added.]

      Come again? 

      If Redfield is now telling all Americans and the world that wearing a face mask is going to better protect him than even a COVID vaccine likely would, why are Bonnie Henry and John Horgan still refusing to make masks mandatory in classrooms?

      Are they so at odds with the CDC director on the value of masks in curbing the spread of the virus as to risk dismissing his counsel in doing everything in their power to keep kids and teachers safe?

      They should listen to America’s most trusted COVID expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci. He also recommends masks for students, as he said in this recent interview.

      For that matter, why do Horgan and Henry continue to leave it up to private businesses to determine whether or not to impose mandatory mask policies—or thermal checking preventative measures?

      Why aren’t we insisting on checking people’s temperatures in our schools, as the airlines mostly all came to require as a prudent precautionary requirement, despite Canada’s top health officers resisting that measure as they initially rejected imposing international travel restrictions?

      Pardon the pun, but it makes my blood boil to see how milquetoast Henry, Tam, and their counterparts across Canada have so often been in embracing and insisting upon such preventative measures that only the “changing evidentiary science” forces them to revisit.

      And mandatory masks in classrooms is only one key precautionary preventative measure that the BCTF has been vainly urging the government to adopt in the broad public interest.

      When kids or teachers get sick, the compounding damage is enormous.

      Health impacts aside, the less obvious costs are massive from increased contact tracing and from isolation and/or quarantine impacts that will further hamper B.C.’s economic recovery. 

      BCTF president Teri Mooring wants the B.C. Labour Relations Board to force the government to do more to protect her members.

      BCTF stands up for public health

      Fact is, the Horgan administration should not be opposed to any of the actions that the BCTF are now fighting for the Labour Relations Board to formally review as necessary job site safety improvements.

      As a supposed democratic socialist ally of organized labour and all “working people”, how on Earth can it be fighting teachers’ efforts to better us all, B.C.’s kids especially?

      Who can blame teachers and BCTF president Teri Mooring for wanting to do everything in their power to stop the spread of COVID in our schools?

      The jaded patriarchs in the legislative press gallery, that’s who, apparently.

      Some of them are so often too quick to dismiss that union’s protests as just so much “cry wolf” whining, fed up as those media “wise men” are at all those teachers who dare to challenge their sage opinions in social media.

      How clever, Keith. 

      Spare us your patronizing jabs that in this case mostly demonstrate that it is actually you who doesn’t get “the Big Picture”. 

      Don’t blame the BCTF for now also standing up for their members and for all students and parents by taking their appeal for enhanced COVID safety measures to the LRB.

      It won’t be the BCTF’s fault if the Horgan government is too stupid to avoid an utterly avoidable all-out labour clash with teachers, because it refuses to take the necessary steps to make our schools as safe as possible.

      Sorry, clever Keith, but if anything, as it says in its application to the LRB, the BCTF is actually trying to avoid the prospect of any unwelcome labour disruption by taking the least politically harmful action it can to finally force government to listen and act on its dire safety concerns. 

      In my partisan past, I would have surely cheered any such cheap media attacks that might rally public support against that union’s “militarism”. 

      Yet it doesn’t mean that the BCTF hasn’t been right all along in many of its political, legal, and moral efforts to force governments of all partisan stripes to do what is really right for students, teachers and parents alike.

      As the courts held, after more than a decade-long legal struggle, the BCTF was right all along in condemning the Campbell government for ripping up its labour contract.

      It was right about reversing that illegal effort to increase the reduced class sizes that had been negotiated in good faith.

      In light of that battle, what’s really ironic is how the Horgan government is now in danger of positioning itself as the new champion for contract shredding.

      Don’t blame the BCTF if Horgan and his labour party choose to rip up the confidence and supply contract it supposedly negotiated in good faith with the Greens by going to the polls a year earlier than it promised, in violation of its sworn requirements. 

      Don’t blame the BCTF if Horgan shreds the solemn social contract that he signed and held out to the lieutenant-governor and all British Columbians in “good faith”.

      Don’t blame the BCTF if Horgan marches bullheaded-forward with an unwanted, ill-advised snap election that makes a mockery of the law that Horgan amended—and that also stands to make school safety a key ballot issue.

      Most importantly, don’t blame the BCTF if the NDP continues to defend the indefensible by resisting teachers’ desperate efforts to fully and properly protect kids in our schools.

      This shouldn’t even be a matter of debate, let alone a political battleground.

      So make no mistake, by breaking his word and continuing to ignore the BCTF’s sound appeals, Horgan and the NDP will have no one to blame but themselve for forever defining themselves as being every bit as bad as the boneheaded bullies they accused the Liberals of being.

      All of this could be instantly avoided by Horgan immediately dropping his cynical, wholly self-interested, opportunistic snap election plan. And instead, by him honourably working with the BCTF to correct his government’s failures to minimize the COVID risks in B.C.’s schools.

      If Horgan continues to thumb his nose at the public on those fronts, his NDP government will deserve every bit of criticism and political blowback that it is now actively and dangerously inviting.

      The BCTF has already displayed far more political restraint than it would have ever afforded the B.C. Liberals had they ever acted as the NDP has to date, in refusing to properly protect students, teachers and support workers from this global pandemic. 

      Teri Mooring could have already been running a massive TV ad campaign to ramp up pressure on the government, to force it to do the right thing.

      She didn’t. Instead, she chose to work cooperatively with Team Horgan and Team Henry, hoping beyond hope that her union’s strong advice would be heeded and implemented. To no avail. 

      Time to play hardball. The LRB appeal is only a smart baby step. 

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

      To properly protect and save human life. To keep us all as healthy as possible. To avoid any potential for labour disruption. 

      And even to stop the NDP from potentially committing political hara-kiri.

      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