A reminder to students and staff at Surrey’s Strawberry Hill Elementary to physically distance during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo: Lauren Collins)

A reminder to students and staff at Surrey’s Strawberry Hill Elementary to physically distance during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo: Lauren Collins)

‘We are not safe,’ Surrey Teachers’ Association says in letter to Dr. Henry

Open letter says teachers are ‘impacted daily by COVID-19’

The Surrey Teachers’ Association has penned an open letter to B.C.’s top doctor, saying they feel unsafe in schools during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the letter to provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, the STA said there are 6,000 teachers in B.C.’s largest school district, teaching 75,000 students in 130 schools across the city.

“Some are so severely overcrowded that there are as many as 20 portables on the fields or parking lots. Every small prep room, cupboard, and alcove is being used as a teaching space or workspace,” says the letter signed by STA first vice-president Julia MacRae. “In normal times, overcrowding is the source of almost every problem and tension in our school district, and in the pandemic the overcrowding is hazardous.

“We are not safe.”

READ ALSO: Schools exempt from new mask mandate, but concern mounting in Surrey, Nov. 20, 2020

MacRae said teachers are “impacted daily by COVID-19,” and doing their best to meet the guidelines.

The letter asks Henry to change the requirement for all students to be attending class at the same time, to reconsider making masks mandatory in schools and to implement 50 per cent density in classrooms.

“Cohorts have been established but there is intermixing that can’t be controlled in hallways, playgrounds, and at lunch hour,” explained MacRae. “We simply don’t have the space to ensure physical distancing in our schools, and we require a reduction in density to make that possible.

“In any other indoor public setting, there would be fines to have 30 people sitting close together in one 75 square meter space without masks. In jurisdictions across the world, students wear masks inside classrooms. It’s one of the most important layers of protection against the transmission of the virus.”

MacRae added that teachers have contracted COVID-19, with at least one spending time in hospital in the intensive care unit. Two schools have had to shut down, and at other schools cohorts have had to self-isolate.

“There are daily staff meetings to address exposure notifications, and there have been hundreds of those.”

Darlene Lourenco, the music teacher at Cambridge Elementary, spent two weeks in hospital after contracting COVID-19, which she suspected she caught at school.

READ ALSO: Surrey music teacher at home after two-week hospital stay battling COVID-19, Nov. 28, 2020

READ ALSO: Surrey school that shut down due to COVID-19 outbreak set to reopen next week, Nov. 26

READ ALSO: Second Surrey elementary school declares COVID-19 outbreak, closes for two weeks, Nov. 27, 2020

Cambridge shut down Nov. 14 through 30 after Fraser Health declared an outbreak, and Newton Elementary reopened on Dec. 14 after declaring an outbreak on Nov. 27.

According to the letter, there is a lack of substitute teachers, “which is a symptom of the teacher shortage, but mostly because so many are retired teachers who are afraid of getting COVID-19 at school.”

MacRae added the STA is asking the Ministry of Health to listen to teachers “about the reality of our experiences.”

This isn’t the first time the STA has sent a letter to officials.

On Nov. 27, the association outlined three demands that the district should implement “immediately”: all students and staff be “required to wear a non-medical mask” when physical distancing is not possible in all places in schools; the district needs to “immediately move to implement a variant of Stage 3,” with a maximum 50 per cent density for all classes; the district needs to reopen online learning programs for those families that choose to not send their children to school; and “accommodations need to be provided for immunocompromised teachers and/or with medically supported health concerns.”

That letter was sent to school trustees and district administrative staff.

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