Teachers and support staff at Surrey’s Ecole Woodward Hill hold flags and wear red during a “walk-in” outside the school on Tuesday. (Submitted photo: Matt Westphal)

Teachers and support staff at Surrey’s Ecole Woodward Hill hold flags and wear red during a “walk-in” outside the school on Tuesday. (Submitted photo: Matt Westphal)

Teachers, staff host ‘solidarity march’ at Surrey school hit by COVID-19 variants

‘We need better safety standards in Surrey schools with the variants’: teachers association president

Teachers and support staff at École Woodward Hill Elementary marched in solidarity outside the South Newton school on Tuesday morning (Feb. 23), in a call for better safety standards after cases of the UK variant of COVID-19 showed up there and at other schools in Surrey and Delta over the past week.

“It was a walk-in, not a walk-out,” said Matt Westphal, president of Surrey Teachers Association. “The teachers and the support staff, late yesterday they decided they wanted to do some sort of a demonstration, a solidarity march, have everyone wear red, ‘Red for B.C. Ed,’ to show everyone that we’re in this together and we’re committed to safety and really, to send a message to the Minister of Education and the public health office that we need better safety standards in Surrey schools with the variants.”

On Monday (Feb. 22), Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside and deputy health officer Dr. Reka Gustafson rejected BC Teachers Federation calls for school districts to be able to adopt their own safety plans to respond to spikes of exposure.

Whiteside acknowledged that information released Saturday and Sunday of exposures to the B.1.1.7 variant in seven schools in Surrey and Delta was “not the news parents and staff wanted to receive over the weekend.”

But she said if changes need to be made, they will be better indicated by contact tracing and testing processes already in place across the province. “We need to let the processes unfold to see how this happened,” Whiteside said.

Surrey Teachers Association says having cases of variants in schools needs to be “a game-changer,” and greater protections are needed to keep schools operating.

Westphal says he hopes B.C.’s health and education authorities take notice of the “walk-in” march at Woodward Hill.

“The parents seemed very supportive, honking horns and wearing red themselves, and part of this is the frustration resulting from yesterday’s press conference,” said Westphal, who doesn’t rule out similar marches taking place at other local schools.

“We’re not telling our members to do them, and I think it will depend on how the situation unfolds this week and how we go forward three weeks until spring break,” Westphal said. “Everyone in the system is trying to get to that break, spring break, but then there’s the whole worry about, ‘Well, what are people going to do during the break?’ If people follow the rules, that might help, but if they’re socializing and travelling, then that could make things worse.”

On Saturday (Feb. 20), Surrey school district issued notices to three schools where exposures occurred in late January and early February: at A.H.P. Matthew Elementary, Tamanawis Secondary and École Woodward Hill Elementary.

At Ecole Woodward Hill, 6082 142 St., two classes and more than 20 individuals were directed to stay home and self-isolate. “These individuals are also being advised to get tested. They will be able to return to school following a negative test,” reads a statement issued by Superintendent Jordan Tinney.

At Tamanawis, 12600 66 Ave., and A.H.P. Matthew, 13367 97 Ave., the district reached out to three members of each school community, again with instructions to self-isolate and get tested for COVID-19.

On Sunday, Tinney posted an update, noting additional exposures at Surrey Traditional School, 13875 113 Ave., where two classes were directed to stay home and self-isolate, and James Ardiel Elementary, 13751 112 Ave., where five classes received the same direction.

In addition to three individual exposures noted at Tamanawis on Saturday, Tinney said, one class and seven individuals were also directed to stay home and self-isolate.

The B.1.1.7 variant of COVID-19 may spread more easily, the school district’s statement noted.

“Testing for the variant takes longer than standard COVID-19 testing, which is why we have received the information now.”

In a statement issued Sunday (Feb. 21), BCTF president Teri Mooring said exposures to one of the more infectious variants of COVID-19 in schools in Surrey and Delta is creating concerns among teachers around the province.

“We need the Ministry of Education, the provincial health officer, and health authorities to do more to protect staff, students and the families they all go home to.”

Mooring called for school districts to be given the authority to “go above and beyond the established health and safety guidelines when necessary.”

with file from Alex Browne

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