Smoke from U.S. wildfires blankets parts of the Lower Mainland on Monday, Sept. 14, 2020. (Black Press Media files)

Wildfire smoke another health issue for schools

No smoke-related school closures contemplated by Maple Ridge district

Wildfire smoke blanketing Southern B.C. is causing children to be cooped up in schools with no open windows nor playtime outside, causing further concerns by teachers going back to school during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Trevor Takasaki, president of the Maple Ridge Teachers’ Association, said restrictions keeping windows shut and kids inside during a time when air quality is rated “high risk,” are at odds with coronavirus back-to-school plans calling for increased ventilation and to take children outdoors for classes when possible.

“I was surprised they didn’t cancel school yesterday or today,” said Takasaki, noting the dangerous air quality is “making the COVID situation worse.”

“It couldn’t come at a worse time,” he said, noting Monday was the first day when classes were full for the new school year in School District 42.

“I think that would be considered a unique situation, and maybe it would be justified to call it off for a day or two,” he said. “We are pinched between the COVID response of needing better ventilation, but being told ‘Don’t open your windows.’”

READ ALSO: ‘It is a pandemic’: B.C. health minister defends school plan, but says cases are inevitable

The BC Teachers’ Federation urged teachers to take sick days if the smoke is affecting their health.

The Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows school board did consult with Fraser Health during the weekend, said school district senior manager of communications Irena Pochop.

“We send out a message to our school principals, vice principals and district managers every morning updating them on the Air Quality Health Index for the day,” she said. “Because the levels of smoke tend to vary by neighbourhood… we advise principals to assess conditions at school level to determine what shelter in place strategies may be required.

“We also ask principals that staff review their student lists for students with asthma or other breathing conditions, and stay observant in case interventions are required. Further, we advise that staff should reduce or refrain from any strenuous physical activities, especially outdoor activities, when the air quality index is poor.”

READ ALSO: COVID-19 controls tightened as cases rise and possible second wave looms

She said that outdoor activities are an added layer of protection in the COVID-19 context, but the district has several layers of COVID-19 health and safety control measures in place in the schools, many of which are – she said – “far more effective.”

“Our COVID-19 controls remain strong and include daily health checks, learning groups/cohorts, respiratory etiquette, hand hygiene, robust absence policies, improved ventilation in our schools, maximizing physical distance and minimizing physical contact,” said Pochop.

“These measures are all highly effective and will continue to provide important layers of protection as we wait for the smoke to clear.”

She added smoke-related school closures are not being contemplated.

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