3 functional closures of B.C. schools since students returned to in-person learning

It’s been one week since students returned to the classroom for in-person learning since the extended three-week winter break, and already, there have been three schools forced to briefly shut down.

Both Armstrong Elementary in the North Okanagan and Hazelton Secondary School posted notices on their website explaining that a “staffing shortage” had prompted temporary closures.

“Those are areas in the province where the teacher shortage is just particularly dire,” said Teri Mooring, president of the BC Teachers’ Federation. “It’s not surprising that these are the areas where we're seeing the first few functional closures.”

She said the third school that closed was an independent school in Surrey.

In Armstrong, the staffing shortage was caused by teachers exercising their right to refuse unsafe work and filed claims with WorkSafe BC.

Graham Gomme, president of the North Okanagan-Shuswap Teachers Association, did not respond to CTV News’ questions about how many teachers filed unsafe work claims and did not elaborate on the situation, but hinted the issue of masking is to blame.

“Most of the teachers felt unsafe working at the school and several have stayed home because of the number of students not wearing masks,” Gomme wrote in an email.

Since Oct. 1, 2021, a mask mandate was expanded to include all K to 12 students.

There are some exemptions allowed, including students who cannot tolerate a mask for health or behavioural reasons, but Mooring said some students are refusing to wear masks altogether.

“This has been an issue for some time. And I think it's become much more intense because people are much more concerned about how transmissible Omicron is,” she said.

Jennifer Heighton, an elementary school teacher and co-founder of Safe School Coalition, said she’s spent the first week preparing her students in case her school is also forced to close.

“We were all told to make sure that they were familiar with the computer systems,” she said. “For some of them, it was the first time they’ve ever used email so that was interesting and it takes time to get it ready.”

She said it was concerning that already three other schools have had to functionally close.

“There's only been very few days and so to have three so quickly, it was quite surprising. Although with the Omicron being so incredibly transmissible and the fact that it's spreading in the community so much, I guess in some ways, we shouldn't be surprised,” Heighton said.

To help make schools safer, Burnaby company Vitacore is donating 100,000 N99, N95 and FFP3 respirators to teachers through the BCTF.

“Personally as a parent, I'm very grateful for all the work that they're doing right now,” said Mikhail Moore. “We are behind them and it gets the conversation rolling about, you know, what a high level of protection, specifically respiratory protection, within schools looks like. But there's a lot of work for us to still do.”

Some school districts have made the investment for HEPA filters.

Federal funding for better ventilation in schools also means some headway is being made, said Mooring.

But some teachers would like to see the province set up by prioritizing booster shots for teachers and providing N95s.

“Every safety measure that we're calling for, is all designed to keep schools open and safe,” Mooring said.