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Who oversees compliance with COVID-19 guidelines in B.C. schools?

Last Updated Nov 9, 2020 at 2:39 pm PST

FILE: A physical distancing sign is seen during a media tour of Hastings Elementary school in Vancouver on September 2, 2020. Students across British Columbia are getting ready for COVID-19 orientation sessions this week amid a flurry of new protocols aimed at reopening schools while the pandemic wears on. Education Minister Rob Fleming has said districts are expecting 85 to 90 per cent of students to attend school in person, but some parents and students say they're frustrated by the lack of remote learning options, large class sizes and inconsistent messaging when it comes to physical distancing. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Summary

Minister Rob Fleming says the province has been clear about guidlines in schools, enforcement up to schools, districts

The BC Teachers' Federation wants the province to set up a new mechanism to oversee compliance, enforcement

VICTORIA (NEWS 1130) — Parents, staff, and students remain concerned pandemic safety plans for B.C. schools are not robust enough and that not all guidelines are being followed.

Who can students, parents, or teachers go to if they’re worried not enough is being done at their school?

B.C.’s Minister of Education Rob Fleming tells NEWS 1130 enforcement is not the purview of his ministry, which laid out a plan for a safe return to school and dispersed funding to districts in order to make it possible to implement COVID-19 protocols.

“Our core responsibility was having an overall plan for a safe restart to school, issuing comprehensive guideline documents both from the Ministry of Education as well as the [Provincial Health Officer], ensuring that we worked with local administrators throughout the summer to get the plan in place, and working through the ministry to coordinate the procurement of supplies that would keep schools safe and able to reopen,” he says.

Fleming says the province’s guidelines on some things, like masks, are both clear and specific, and the expectation is that they are being adhered to.

“Middle and secondary school students absolutely have to wear masks when they’re outside of their learning cohorts, when they’re in crowded areas, of course when they’re using any form of transportation to get to and from school, and our mask mandate remains consistent with almost every other province and territory,” he says.

Listen: NEWS 1130’s Liza Yuzda interviews Minister of Education Rob Fleming

When it comes to physical distancing, the guideline specifies students should be kept one metre apart.

“Those are the guidelines that suggest how desks should be configured and the guidelines have been co-created with every partner in the sector including teachers’ representatives, principals and vice-principals, parents organizations. Obviously, the science is left to the public health management and they submitted those guidelines to the sector so they could plan the restart,” he says.

When that can’t happen, or isn’t happening, there is no requirement to install barriers, but Fleming says many schools are opting to do so.

“We’ve allowed districts a considerable amount of flexibility about the kinds of barriers that they wish to provide,” he notes.

“There are considerable amounts of money being spent on plexiglass barriers within schools, and districts have a high degree of freedom to determine for themselves how much they may additionally need. The money’s been supplied to do that. Districts are in fact making those kind of investments in their libraries and common areas and indeed in classroom settings.”

Fleming outlines a number of ways districts have spent the first installment of $290-million of COVID-specific funding.

“We do know from surveying districts that they have purchased 64,000 laptops and tablets to support remote learning of their students that’s a huge amount of technology purchased compared to previous school years. We have something like 25,000 hand sanitizer stations that have been created in schools, over 1,000 additional handwashing stations have been built and supplied in the school system. And of course, we have a good idea of how many millions of articles of PPE have been bought and supplied to the school system,” he says.

According to Fleming, almost 800 teachers have been hired to help deliver remote learning to students, while 900 custodial staff have been added so cleaning can be stepped up.

But what happens if the ministry’s direction is not followed?

Fleming says his ministry does not oversee compliance. That is — first and foremost — the responsibility of the occupational health and safety committees at the school and district levels. Teachers or other staff with concerns can contact WorkSafe BC.

 

Meantime, The BC Teachers’ Federation says schools and districts are falling short they’re looking to the province to direct districts to ensure safety plans are enforced.

Union President Teri Mooring explains that this is the crux of their application to the Labour Relations Board. 

“There is the lack of oversight in terms of districts’ adherence to those safety plans. So, we have places where they’re not cleaning as much as they should be or aren’t enforcing the mask policy that does exist, there’s no oversight of that. For us, we don’t have any dispute resolution mechanism that’s intended to deal with health and safety issues quickly,” she says.

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The existing avenues for teachers to raise concerns that Fleming points to aren’t adequate to address the unique health and safety issues presented by COVID-19, according to Mooring.

“Whether it’s WorkSafe, or what have you, there’s no oversight or enforcement. Nothing new has been set up as a result of COVID,” she says.

“What we’re hearing from school districts is that the health and safety guidelines aren’t enforceable.”

Another issue Mooring raises is efficiency, saying the steps teachers would usually take to address workplace concerns are too slow.

“We would really like government to support some kind of mechanism being put in place because there needs to be a mechanism where locals and districts can get things quickly resolved.”