Armstrong, B.C. teachers cite unsafe work conditions as 15% of students stop wearing masks

Teachers at a North Okanagan elementary school have deemed their work conditions too unsafe to go forward this week, triggering a temporary school closure.

“The North Okanagan Shuswap Teachers Association informed the school district that it is unsafe for teachers to work at Armstrong Elementary based on the number of students not wearing masks,” North Okanagan-Shuswap Teachers Association president Graham Gomme said Friday.

There are an estimated 260 students at the elementary school and, of those, 40 were said to be granted mask exemptions. That’s roughly 15 per cent of the learning population.

Gomme added that in addition to those who recently decided conditions were far from ideal, a number of teachers were already not working because they felt unsafe at the school even before the union submitted the notice to the district.

“Teachers will be at the school teaching their students remotely until the district re-opens the school for in-person learning,” Gomme said.

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Superintendent of Schools Donna Kriger said that the classrooms would be functionally closed from Friday, Jan. 14 to Monday, Jan. 17, and said the closure was triggered due to “the district’s inability to cover staff shortages to provide the required level of instruction, safety and supervision of students.

“I recognize this is a stressful time for students, families and staff. Please know that all possible alternatives were considered prior to making this decision,” Kriger said in a newsletter that went out to families.

“I have every confidence that the staff at Armstrong Elementary will provide a positive learning environment for your child(ren) through this remote setting. We will continue to monitor the situation throughout the weekend. Updates regarding a return to school or possible extension of the functional closure will be determined according to our ability to staff the school appropriately.”

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It’s not the first time a situation of this kind has occurred within the district. Gomme said that teachers at Ranchero Elementary School in Salmon Arm sent an unsafe work notice before winter break. Teachers there are working while the process continues.

Kindergarten to Grade12 students, staff and visitors are required to wear masks in all indoor areas, including at desks and on school buses.

Exceptions to the mask policy include people who cannot tolerate wearing a mask for health or behavioural reasons and people unable to put on or remove a mask without the assistance of another person.

A mask can be removed temporarily to engage in an educational activity that cannot be performed while wearing a mask. That includes while playing a wind instrument, engaging in high-intensity physical activity, while eating or drinking or while providing a service to a person with a disability or diverse ability where visual cues, facial expressions and/or lip reading/movements are important.

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