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Are Schools Safe to Return? As a BC Teacher, I’m Not Sure

Decades of education underfunding has meant some facilities aren’t up to snuff.

Lizanne Foster 28 Jul 2020 | TheTyee.ca

Lizanne Foster began teaching in South Africa during the apartheid-era. She’s taught humanities in the Surrey School District since 1997. Find her blog here.

As a Surrey high school teacher, I would feel less anxious about going back into the classroom in September after health officials conducted random checks of schools in poor and rich communities to see firsthand the state of B.C.’s facilities.

Restaurants are regularly inspected to ensure they’re hygienic and safe. All businesses frequented by the public know they have to comply with safety provisions, or their reputation will suffer and they’ll lose clients.

But public schools in B.C. seem to exist in a different category when it comes to health and safety.

It’s only recently that there’s been progress toward seismic safety, but ongoing problems with mice infestations and lead-tainted water in some schools seem to be an inconvenient truth that we should all just learn to live with.

For almost two decades under the BC Liberals, there was little money to fix failing and inadequate school infrastructure. It’s understandable that the current BC NDP government cannot reverse the damage of decades of neglect within a short time.

That neglect was at best tolerable during the “Before Times.” But then COVID-19 came along and shone blinding sunlight into the darkest of health and safety corners within B.C.’s public education system.

Like many people in B.C., I’ve been glued to provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry’s regular COVID-19 updates. I admire her calm demeanour and steadfast handling of this crisis. I’ve been especially impressed by the way she responds when concerns are raised about the number of people lining up to board a ferry or the number of people enjoying the sun at a local beach.

She refuses to fan any frustration that some may feel at the apparent violation of her orders. Instead she expresses confidence, backed by data, that people are in fact following her orders.

Henry is reasonable and expects people to be as well. She has instructed the Ministry of Education to ensure that schools are safe for students’ return. I’m sure she expects that the ministry will be reasonable in its execution of her orders.

The problem is that teachers have vivid memories of the ministry being anything but reasonable. Whether it was when it ignored pleas for more funding for students with special needs, being unreasonable has been the ministry’s default setting for quite a while.

For years teachers have said that it’s not reasonable to expect students to learn in hot and stuffy portable classrooms; that it’s not reasonable to expect teachers to spend their own money on supplies for their classrooms.

And teachers know that it’s not reasonable for the ministry to expect that after decades of budget cuts, there will be enough money in each school district to ensure Henry’s protocols are followed.

For example, how does one ensure thorough hand hygiene when taps have to be held down to get a four-second spurt of cold water?

How will overworked, skeletal custodial staff manage with the much longer list of cleaning tasks when they barely had enough time for cleaning classrooms during the Before Times?

In B.C., we can expect that any hospital in the province has standardized facilities to protect the health of patients and staff. No such standardization exists in B.C. schools.

Whereas one school may have a mice infestation and warnings posted at drinking fountains not to drink the water, another may have ergonomically designed classrooms with beautiful bathrooms in wide hallways, lots of natural light everywhere, and easy access to outdoor classrooms.

Teachers across the province know that, in some schools, it will be easy to follow all the guidelines for a safe return to school. But in too many schools it will not be.

It’s clear from a recent survey conducted by the BC Teachers' Federation that I’m not the only teacher with concerns. Teachers across the province are worried about safety for themselves and their students because they are well aware of widespread failings of school infrastructure.

When all schools have lead-free, drinkable water, when all school washrooms have taps that don’t have to be held down in order to work, when all schools have fully functioning ventilation systems, then we can be confident there will be reduced opportunities for viruses to spread when we return to schools.

That would take money though. And the education budget, as a percentage of our GDP, has been kept low by both major political parties when they’re in power.

In the Before Times, the impacts of regular reductions to education budgets have been borne by students who have fallen through the cracks in the system.

In this time of a pandemic, the impacts of neglected infrastructure could spread well beyond classroom walls.

And that is not reasonable at all.  [Tyee]

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