School in B.C.'s Interior closes after teachers refuse to work due to high number of unmasked students

·3 min read
Teachers at an elementary school in B.C.'s Interior are refusing to work in the building due to the high number of mask exemptions among students. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC - image credit)
Teachers at an elementary school in B.C.'s Interior are refusing to work in the building due to the high number of mask exemptions among students. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC - image credit)

An elementary school in the city of Armstrong, in B.C.'s Interior, will remain closed this week as teachers refuse to work due to a high number of students not wearing masks amid a surge of COVID-19 cases.

The closure started Friday after several teachers at Armstrong Elementary expressed concern about a high number of mask exemptions being granted to students, resulting in what they worry is an unsafe work environment, said North Okanagan-Shuswap Teachers Association president Graham Gomme.

Gomme said a WorkSafeBC investigation is being launched into the issue.

Since the closure was announced Friday, three staff members have tested positive for COVID-19, according to the school's website.

The district says while it can no longer provide enough staff to keep the school open, it will provide remote learning for students during the closure.

"I am fully aware of the many implications this decision has on families within the school community. I also understand this is creating some inconvenience and even hardship for some of you. Our hope and intent continues to be to offer in-person learning for our students," district superintendent Donna Kriger said Monday in a letter to parents.

WATCH | District says school closure due to staffing issues

B.C. Teachers' Federation president Teri Mooring says she wasn't surprised when she learned about the school closure last Friday, because she knows many teachers are concerned that the public health order to wear masks in schools isn't being strictly enforced.

"It [mask wearing] is a problem across the entire province, more intensified in some districts than others," Mooring said Monday to host Chris Walker on CBC's Daybreak South.

"There isn't a district in the province where I haven't spoken to teachers and they haven't expressed concerns about low rates of mask wearing, especially in some classrooms."

Michael McArthur/CBC
Michael McArthur/CBC

Gomme said one of the major concerns presented by teachers is the fact parents do not need to provide any proof their children are unable to wear a mask.

"They don't need to go the doctor, they don't need to do anything," he said. "They just say, 'My child has an exemption and we can't refute that."

Mooring says there has been a lot of mixed messaging about mask wearing among families of students.

"Mask wearing has become political," she said. "There just wasn't enough education given to families or, quite frankly, some education staff around the fact this is a provincial health order," she said.

Mooring said schools should let families know it's important to mask up and vaccinate their children.

According to guidelines issued by the B.C. Ministry of Education, while mask exemptions must be accommodated, parents and schools are expected to "explore potential strategies to reinforce and enhance other safety measures" when students are unable to wear a mask in the classroom.

Kriger says the school district has been working to accommodate parents' requests for mask exemptions for their kids, but she hopes parents also make an effort to maintain good relationships with school staff.

"I understand that parents are fatigued. I also understand that kids are fatigued from this. And absolutely, our staff is fatigued," she said Monday on Daybreak South.

"I hope that we have our relationships intact, that we've been able to come through this being respectful of one another, that we can appreciate that we have differences of opinions, but that we can still get along."

Amy Cohen, whose child is in Grade 5 at Armstrong Elementary School, says she supports teachers' refusal to work at school when they feel unsafe, but she expects more transparent communication from the school district and the teachers' union regarding the conditions for school closure.

"I really do feel for parents of younger children or parents of multiple children who are at home and who are also working — it's going to be definitely a juggling game, and we'll just make a go of it day by day," Cohen said on Daybreak South.