As the new 2020/21 school year is set to begin, many are wondering what our public education system will look like during the ongoing Covid-19 global pandemic. In British Columbia, Canada the Covid-19 response led by Premier John Horgan and Provincial Health Officer (PHO) Dr. Bonnie Henry, has been praised by many politicians and status quo British Columbians, as B.C. has kept its infection rates relatively low. However, as the new school year nears, the public’s confidence is waning as the BC government has announced an unrealistic back-to-school plan that is counterintuitive to all of the guidelines set up thus far in the province. Added to this, over the summer, the numbers of confirmed Covid-19 cases in the province have been rising and breaking records.
Parents, students, educators, administrators, and wider community members are rightfully skeptical about where this plan comes from and why it seems science is taking a back seat to restarting the economy. Many are wondering, does the B.C. government have the health and safety of the public as its top priority? Of course, the situation is not limited to the province of British Columbia. Alarm bells are being sounded across Canada and the United States, where millions of working and marginalized people are being forced to go back to school and work in unsafe conditions.
Dangerous pushing: Back-to-school in B.C.
On July 29, 2020, the B.C. Minister of Education, Rob Fleming, announced that B.C. public schools would be back to face-to-face instruction in the fall, explaining schools would open on Sept 8, “with full-time in-class learning.” Meaning no online classes for those wishing to keep their kids at home.
Within the B.C. government’s plan, educators and students will be organized into “learning groups” made up of a maximum of 60 people in elementary school and 120 in high school. Mask wearing and physical distancing will be recommended, but not required within these large “learning groups.” Indeed, due to the number of students expected to return and the size of most B.C. classrooms (due to the lack of viable online options), physical distancing will be impossible.
The response to this plan (and the lack of at-home learning options it offered) was strong and visceral from parents, students, and teachers alike. Within weeks over 40,000 people signed a Change.org petition demanding the return to in-school classes be voluntary due to the ongoing pandemic. The B.C. Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) started a letter writing campaign to local MLAs at www.supportbcteachers.ca to demand: 1) Smaller class sizes and reduced school density to allow for physical distancing. 2) Stronger mask regulations for when physical distancing isn’t possible. 3) Options for remote learning for students who need it. 4) Funding to improve cleaning and ventilation. On August 27, the union announced that over 20,000 people had participated in this campaign.
On all recent social media, news websites, YouTube videos, advertisements, and press conferences from Dr. Bonnie Henry and provincial Health Minister Adrian Dix, one can find a barrage of comments critical of what they continue to tout as ‘science’ supporting their back-to-school plan. Socially distanced protests were even organized by parent groups.
Confusing message: Investing in safe schools!
Over a month later, on August 31, B.C.'s Health Minister Adrian Dix and Dr. Bonnie Henry gave their regularly scheduled Covid-19 press briefing. There they announced that the province of 5.1 million residents had 1,107 active cases of Covid-19, a new record high for the province, only a week before schools were set to open.
Many were expecting a change of course. Surely all of this means that the plan for “learning groups” of 60-120 non-mask wearing/non-physically distanced in-class learning would be canceled? However, as the new school year approaches, the B.C. government has continued to double down on its plans. The only hint of change was promising some online options for families, but these are too little and come with limitations.
Here are some quotations showing the hypocrisy of what teachers and students are expected to engage in at school (learning groups of 60-120 people, no required masks or physical distancing) versus what Dr. Bonnie Henry asked B.C. residents to do in their personal lives. Dr. Henry advised: "keeping our groups small," "avoiding face-to-face contacts," "we need to rethink gatherings, particularly ones we are going to have indoors," and "if you live in a small apartment, then large parties with even 10 or 15 people is not safe for you or for your guests." Classrooms are definitely smaller than most apartments!
Everyone paying attention, including seasoned journalists who traditionally mock teachers and their union the BCTF, were left scratching their heads in bewilderment. In fact, the Langley Advance Times Newspaper editorial board published a piece titled, "Our View: Clash over back to school was avoidable.” In the article, they question the back-to-school plan, “For the last six months, we’ve heard nothing but the steady drumbeat of physical distancing, physical distancing, physical distancing. Then the very people leading that chant, including provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, said it’s okay to send kids back into classrooms, many of them unmasked, gathering in cohorts of between 60 and 120. So the province expected us to simultaneously adhere to strict physical distancing guidelines, and to send kids straight back into situations that violate those guidelines. Somehow, the province thought that all parents would be able to swallow this cognitive dissonance.”
How is the B.C. government justifying its plan? It is calling schools and the “learning group” a "controlled environment." As students are only in school about 7 hours out of 24 in a day, and only 5 days a week, no one is clear what that means!
BC government neglects the health and safety of the public
The Covid-19 pandemic is a class issue - grocery store clerks, major chain department store workers, construction workers, bus drivers, nurses, hospital custodial staff, etc. have all been asked to work with limited safety/distancing measures in place throughout this pandemic. These workers come into contact with hundreds of people each day. While some of these workers are unionized and others are not, there has been minimal effort from government and companies to give working people the tools they need to earn a living, pay rent, and stay healthy and safe throughout the spread of this deadly virus.
Toronto Public Health released data exposing how Covid-19 particularly harms working and oppressed people. Toronto Public Health’s Dr. Eileen de Villa held a press conference on July 30, a Global News article explains, "Those with lower incomes are overrepresented in COVID-19 cases. De Villa said 51 per cent of those with COVID-19 are considered lower-income, which is compared to 30 per cent of the city’s population who meet the same definition." We know that many working people are being put in harm’s way, so the statistics seem to reflect something obvious.”
Of course, working and low-income people are not the only group being disproportionally affected. We know that Black, Indigenous, and people of colour are being hit hardest by this pandemic too. According to the same Global News article, the Toronto Public Health data further shows, "83 per cent of people who have contracted COVID-19 in Toronto are racialized. However, Toronto’s racialized communities make up 52 per cent of the city’s population." This is a serious overrepresentation of people of colour testing positive for Covid-19.
At the same time, it is important to know that B.C. is not collecting data on the racial or economic background of those who test positive for Covid-19. While we often hear about the age-cohort victims of this virus belong to or what health region they are from, not collecting information on their class, gender, and racial/ethnic group seriously limits our understanding of how this virus is spreading, who it is affecting, and how to stop it.
The suggestion for B.C. to collect this data was discussed by Dr. Henry five months ago in a press conference but was never implemented. Instead they created a voluntary survey for residents of B.C. to complete, which is less scientific as it is voluntary. Dr. Bonnie Henry discussed the survey results with the media on August 13. As CBC reported, "About 395,000 British Columbians completed the survey, which asked questions about the financial and societal impact the pandemic had taken on them. ‘There was a differential impact on racialized populations in British Columbia,’ Henry said. ‘Not a surprise to us, but it is something that we need to pay attention to.’” If this is an area you know you “need to pay attention to” why aren’t you collecting the data from your patients? This is willful and blind ignorance, and really should be considered a blatant attack on working and oppressed people!
Why we need universal mandatory testing to combat Covid-19
One of the clearest solutions not being proposed by the government in B.C. or Canada is universal mandatory testing for both people with symptoms and those who are asymptomatic. What if every two weeks everyone in BC was tested for Covd-19? What if everyone in Canada had access to free daily home testing?
It seems obvious that if a virus can be spread by people who show no signs or symptoms, that to stop the spread, we must test those without symptoms. Yet in B.C. to get a Covid-19 test you must say that you have symptoms, they will not test you otherwise. This leaves no choice for concerned people but to lie to get tested.
In a U.S. study on universal testing by John Hopkins Medicine, they carried out two types of testing in 11 long-term care facilities in Maryland. The initial "target testing" of those with symptoms in the long-term care facilities, found that 17% were positive with Covid-19. On the other hand, when the second round of universal testing was implemented and all 893 people living in the 11 facilities were tested, it revealed that in fact 40% had the deadly virus. Indeed, the report found that even within the elderly, considered a more vulnerable group, 55% of those who tested positive showed no symptoms of having Covid-19. So how can we stop the spread if we only test those with symptoms?
The economic case for universal testing, was recently made in a report by two senior economists at the International Monetary Fund (IMF), Reda Cherif and Fuad Hasanov. Their abstract explains, “This column argues that a universal testing and isolation policy is the most viable way to vanquish the pandemic. Its implementation requires an epidemiological, rather than clinical, approach to testing, and requires the ramping up of testing kit production in order to achieve a scale and speed that the market alone would fail to provide. The estimated cost of universal testing is dwarfed by its return, mitigating the economic fallout of the pandemic.” Not addressed by this abstract is, of course, the human cost of the pandemic. It is quite clear that we must demand universal and mandatory testing to effectively combat this global pandemic. While this might take a restructuring of our testing system and be expensive, is it not worth it if well-being of people is the goal?
On August 14, 2020, the Atlantic Magazine published an article titled, "The Plan That Could Give Us Our Lives Back," by journalists Robinson Meyer and Alexis C. Madrigal. They explain, "Tests permit us to do the most basic task in disease control: Identify the sick and separate them from the well." This obvious fact is something that is rarely addressed by the mainstream media, where politicians have successfully highlighted the need for risk reduction (mask wearing, physical distancing, etc.) and contact tracing (once people are already sick!). Although rarely discussed is the idea of finding a way to test everyone.
In their article, Meyer and Madrigal explain quick or rapid tests for Covid-19, which are being developed. These tests deliver results in 15 minutes or less, require only a saliva sample, can be done at home, are cheap to make, and easy to mass produce. This would mean people would be able to take a daily test, or maybe even to prove they are Covid-free before entering various institutions (schools, shopping malls, public transit, etc.). These tests are less sensitive than the existing nasal swabs. However, if you are testing daily, when you get a false negative one day, the daily test will likely catch it the next day. This would still be sooner than many who are waiting days for nasal swab results, or at times even waiting days to be able to get tested.
Unfortunately, regulatory bodies such as the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) and Health Canada, are blocking the process for approving these rapid tests falsely arguing that they may give the public a false sense of security and do not meet their stringent standards. Many researchers and medical professionals are organizing to put pressure on them to change this rigid, fictious and bureaucratic approach.
While the government may argue that universal testing is not feasible, we know this is not true and that this is indeed a question of priorities. Restarting face-to-face learning in schools means parents back to work, which they believe is good for their capitalist economy. All reopenings have been economically motivated without human condition consideration. However, we have to ask, at what cost? For the benefit of which group? At the expense of which group? All indications point to this burden falling on the shoulders of oppressed and working people because for capitalism and capitalist politicians profit comes before human need.
We need a safe back to school plan for our communities. We need considerably smaller class sizes and more funding for schools to provide viable online options to all. Most of all, we need free mandatory universal testing for Covid-19 to stop this pandemic in its tracks!
Follow Tamara on Twitter: @THans01
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