Do you remember the first time you heard about the novel coronavirus and then how quickly the schools were shut down after the first outbreaks in Canada? How many of us spent the March break watching the daily news reports and COVID-19 statistics? As the school shutdown was incrementally extended, we watched the successes and failures of safety protocols adopted by schools reopening in other parts of the world, ready to respond with advice for members if the government announced that our schools would be reopened. As members responded to surveys and posted creative ideas on social media with photos, diagrams, calculations and podcasts, we shared some of these examples from the frontlines during our meetings with the government. Even when the consultations didn’t seem genuine, we anticipated the release of the government’s plan for reopening schools, only to be disappointed with every new announcement. Hopefully by the time you read this, some of you are safely accommodated and working from home and some of you continue to work with students in schools without any significant outbreaks or a second wave.
As we prepare this issue of Voice, it is difficult to predict what health and safety advice will be most useful for members a few weeks into the future. Over the last few months, terminology has changed from social distancing to physical distancing and the original public health recommendation of two metres has been changed to one metre for public schools – with debate between provincial and regional health authorities about what will keep students and educators safe. Once studies began to verify evidence of airborne transmission, health authorities updated their advice on the use of masks to prevent the spread of the virus and now emphasize the importance of ventilation. Will schools make provisions for outdoor classrooms? Will the government be forced to provide funding to lower the number of contacts in schools? Many debates revolve around children – are children super-spreaders, asymptomatic, relatively immune or possibly susceptible to serious and long-lasting systemic effects?
You don’t need to look far for the latest advice on how not to wear a mask or whether you need to wipe down your groceries, but it is important to rely on reputable organizations that review all the latest studies and not react to every new study that is reported. As we saw with the advice from Sick Kids, even medical professionals disagree and update their positions based on new information. And while it is useful to rely on scientific studies, we don’t need to wait for scientific proof to implement the precautionary principle, which was one of the lessons from the SARS Commission Report.
By the time you are reading this, we may have learned more. But it is expected that even with a vaccine, the pandemic may affect our lives for quite a while. Whatever the hazard, ultimately it is your employers (school boards) and supervisors (principals) who are obligated by law to provide you with information and instruction regarding any hazard and the protocols in place to control it. There are tip sheets outlining your rights as a worker, the employer’s duty to accommodate and their obligation to take every precaution reasonable as well as reporting obligations if you contract or are exposed to COVID-19 in the workplace at preventionlink.ca.
Over the last few months, you may have already been accessing these sources of information:
- A variety of reliable resources posted on etfohealthandsafety.ca/site/infection-prevention-and-control/;
- The COVID-19 FAQs and eNewsletter (Members who are not receiving ETFO communications can update their information by filling out the form located at this link: www.etfo.ca/link/subscribe);
- Social media posts with the latest information on ETFO’s Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram and
- Most importantly, your local leaders, since each region is affected by community spread differently and each school board has developed its own plans.
Watch for more information about ensuring your physical and psychological health and safety, whether you are working in a school or at home. Knowledge will help us reduce our fear by providing us with the tools to address hazards in our workplaces. Managing our stress and anxiety is also important. ETFO has compiled a list of useful links to help you find mental health resources and supports. See etfo.ca/link/COVID19 for details.
Tracie Edward is a member of the ETFO executive staff.