Four teachers are refusing to work at their North Okanagan elementary school due to health and safety concerns relating to the number of students not wearing masks.
According to North Okanagan-Shuswap Teachers Association president Graham Gomme, a refusal for unsafe work claim through WorkSafeBC has been made to School District 83 (SD83).
“Four teachers at (Armstrong Elementary) have signed it and all are staying home presently because, in their opinion, it is unsafe to work with one-third of their students unmasked in their classes,” Gomme explained in an email to the Observer.
In a prior interview, Gomme said this action is related to the number of parents who have claimed their kids are exempt from wearing a mask.
“We have 6,500 kids (in the school district) and I think there’s about 300 kids at Armstrong Elementary – one out of six exemptions in our whole school district is at that single school,” said Gomme.
According to the B.C. government website, all Kindergarten to Grade 12 students are currently required to wear a mask in all indoor areas, including in the classroom and on school buses. However, the province provides a list of exemptions to the mask policy which include: a person who cannot tolerate wearing a mask for health or behavioural reasons; a person unable to put on or remove a mask without the assistance of another person; while engaging in an educational activity that cannot be performed while wearing a mask; when a person is eating or drinking, or behind a barrier; and while providing a service to a person with a disability or diverse ability where visual cues, facial expressions and/or lip reading/movements are important.
The above mask requirment is part of a Provincial Health Order on Face Coverings, dated Dec. 3, 2021.
SD83’s Communicable Disease Plan recommends “positive and inclusive approaches to engage students in the use of masks,” and advises against use of “measures that are punitive or stigmatizing in nature.”
Gomme said similar actions were taken at another SD83 elementary school where a high number of students were not wearing masks, after which the number of exemptions reduced to less than half.
“If what the experts are telling us, we only need maybe a month or six weeks to get through this horrible variant, then why wouldn’t people just pitch in together?” asked Gomme.
SD83 superintendent Donna Kriger did not respond to the Observer’s request for comment. However, in a Jan. 7 newsletter, she noted “a very small number of masking exemptions apply according to the Public Health Order dated December 3, 2021 relative to face coverings, and that exemption forms would be available from school principals.
“I wish to remind any parents who have previously declared their children ‘exempt’ that they will also need to complete the form so that the accommodation strategies can be established for the return to school on January 10, 2022,” wrote Kriger.
The superintendent credited teaching and support staff for having gone “above and beyond to maintain a sense of calm within our schools and buses,” and she asked parents/caregivers/guardians to “please consider the safety of our staff so that we can keep schools open for all children.”
“I have great faith that even through difficult times we can continue to demonstrate care and respect for one another. I am hopeful that now more than ever, we will return to those core values and extend them to those who serve our children,” said Kriger.
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