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Lower Mainland educators plead province for vaccination prioritization

Last Updated Apr 10, 2021 at 2:56 pm PDT

(iStock Photo)

WEST VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) — Teacher associations across the Lower Mainland are increasing calls for school educators and staff to be vaccinated.

Teachers who have penned an open letter say, “If we’re essential, then we need to be protected,” calling for vaccine prioritization as the P-1 variant takes hold of the province.

Renee Willock, president of the West Vancouver Teachers Association, says teachers are feeling increasingly anxious.

“Teachers are going into crowded classrooms every day. And although we appreciate the fact that everyone from Grade 4 and up is now masked, it’s still very stressful working in these tight conditions when you are not vaccinated,” she said.

Willock adds the association is pushing for leftover jab doses for teachers, which she says could make a huge difference, especially in her district.

She says she understands it’s a supply issue but says perhaps it’s time for the government to pivot on its plan for the vaccine rollout.

“We would really encourage the health authority to include teachers on that list because I know that teachers are keen if there were leftover vaccines in their community,” said Willock. “[Teachers] would make sure that they would get themselves there immediately so that those vaccines aren’t wasted.”

Carolyn Pena, the president of the North Vancouver Teachers Association, says after teachers in Surrey were vaccinated, there haven’t been any further updates on the vaccine plan.

“That total lack of information has really left the teachers with no knowledge and no understanding of what might happen, and that’s coupled with the really sharp increases in cases and of course variants that has left people feeling much more unsafe and having much more concerns about contracting COVID at school,” said Pena.

However, she adds vaccines are just one way the province can help keep teachers safe.

Pena says other than mandatory mask mandates for most grades in public schools, there have been no classroom density changes despite pleas from educators.

“If there’s not going to be a change to how schools operate, then how are we going to make sure that teachers are safe when they’re going to school every day in classrooms with up … 30 students in the classroom?”

In the meantime, teachers are being told schools are an essential workplace, which has Willock wondering why teachers and staff are not being protected like other essential workers.

“It’s been a fight since the beginning,” she said. “It’s been a fight to get masks into schools. At every step, has been a fight, and we’re told that there’s low transmission in schools, but we’re not given any information about what is the rate of transmission within schools?

“None of that data has been released, and we’re just told, ‘trust us, it’s low.’ Yet anecdotally, teachers know that there’s been transmission within their classrooms within their schools.”

Willock adds it’s been frustrating to see that schools are not part of the current workplace orders, which require a shutdown of operations if three or more people are confirmed with COVID.

“We understand the importance of keeping schools open, but if we want schools to stay open, we need to vaccinate the people who work in schools. If too many people are sick, the schools are going to have to close anyway. We have a teacher shortage, and we have a shortage of teachers on call to fill in when teachers are sick.”

Pena and Willock both told NEWS 1130 the province also hasn’t provided any data to back their claims that schools are safe and have lower transmission rates.

“There’s no data to show how that’s true,” Pena said.

As people in the province continue to live through this pandemic, Willock says conditions in schools worsen day by day.

“Emotional exhaustion is reaching a breaking point, with having an impact on mental health for both students and teachers because anxiety is just so high, walking into a workplace, every day, where you may not feel safe, you’re not confident that protections are in place.

“It’s just taking a toll on everybody in the school system.”