British Columbia

'Kids before COVID': Parents and teachers gather in Surrey to protest B.C.'s back-to-school plans

Protesters at Surrey’s Holland Park on Saturday called for a more robust mask mandate in schools, as well as other safety measures, days before kids are expected to be in schools.

The Surrey School District reported more school-based exposures than any other B.C. district in March

Protesters at Surrey's Holland Park called for more clarity around the province's back-to-school plans. (Janella Hamilton/CBC)

Protesters at Surrey's Holland Park on Saturday called for a more robust mask mandate in schools, as well as other safety measures, days before kids are expected back in class.

The concerns come despite the province announcing a mask mandate for kids in Grade 4 and up, with protesters saying the mandate should be extended to all children.

Multiple speakers at the rally asked for more clarity around ventilation and school capacities, and also for better funding for the Surrey school district, which has the highest enrolment in B.C.

Annie Ohana, an organizer with the Safe Schools Coalition and a teacher at L.A. Matheson Secondary School, said teaching during the pandemic has taken a toll on everyone involved.

"We know teachers that want to quit. We know teachers that feel like they're not being heard," she said. 

"And here we are, like, with a week left to go. Still with questions. Still with concerns."

Ohana said teachers are stressed at the idea of teaching in "crowded" rooms, and asked for more funds from all levels of government.

Protesters at the rally also included doctors and parents, who all addressed Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside directly, chanting "Kids Before COVID."

Protesters at Holland Park held up signs calling for remote learning options, vaccine mandates, and more. (Janella Hamilton/CBC)

Return to full capacity a major concern

The Surrey school district said in March that it had the most school-based exposures in British Columbia on a district level. 

With the imminent academic year set to have in-person classes at full capacity, parents at the protest were asking for the virtual learning options and lower class sizes that were in place last year, as well as vaccine mandates.

Jaclyn Ferreira, who has children with disabilities, said the return-to-school plans were not considering families like hers who are at risk.

"Basically, our children are being penalized because they're at risk and that's unjust," she said.

"It really does feel like Groundhog Day that we're still asking for the bare minimum of things to protect our families a year and a half into this."

The concerns of parents are heightened this year, according to Dr. Karina Zeidler, due to the highly transmissible delta variant of COVID-19. 

"This takes one infection in a classroom for it to spread quickly ... it doesn't matter if we have higher rates of vaccination here," she said.

Dr. Karina Zeidler said the delta variant is a particular concern as children are set to return to schools with classrooms at full capacity. (Janella Hamilton/CBC)

Zeidler said Scotland's schools saw a spike in infections due to the delta variant, and asked the government to be more proactive when it comes to protecting children.

The rally also saw the announcement of a Facebook group, which Ohana said would try to amplify parents' concerns at the provincial level.

With files from Janella Hamilton

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