My thoughts on PPE for teachers.

The BC Teachers’ Federation just held its last Representative Assembly (RA) of the school year, remotely by conference call. Building on lessons learned from the remote Annual General Meeting (AGM) held just over a month ago, the RA considered many resolutions and it was a productive meeting. Issues were debated, motions amended, and union democracy advanced.

One of the motions considered was to insist that the employer provide teachers with PPE, including face shields and masks, and training to use them, in time for back to school this September. The motion was debated and discussed. There was genuine interest from the floor to work through the issues related to the motion. In the end, though, the motion was tabled.

This is a regular part of how to discuss complex and challenging issues in a union that represents over 43,000 members. It was a good and constructive conversation. Yes, I would of preferred to see the motion continue to work through amendments and to eventually pass. But that’s not the point. The point is that our elected representatives voted to table it instead. That takes us to this question: Now what?

First, the Executive Committee members who spoke on the matter were clear: PPE for teachers is a priority of the BCTF. Yesterday’s outcome does not change that.

Second, when an issue is complex or there are clearly conflicting points of view, sometimes the best thing to do is to step back and start listening. If a specific motion doesn’t reflect a majority of the deliberative body then you either rework it or you reach out to build support for it. That’s the democratic process – a process that works by building unity and widening support for the policies or priorities we agree to as a collective.

There is a need to make more space for discussing the implications of asking the employer to provide teachers with PPE, face shields, and face masks. Teachers, like all workers, have a right to safe workplace. During COVID-19 teachers are essential workers and schools are often treated as special facilities in public health orders. As essential workers who work in uniquely-regulated worksites, we have an even greater need for protection. Moreover, teachers work in close proximity to people of all ages, for long periods at a time, and in enclosed spaces.

Not everyone is prepared to (or can) wear a mask, or even a face shield. PPE is the least effective of all other measures (such as elimination, substitution, engineering controls, and administrative controls). But PPE is still useful for workers who cannot use certain other exposure control measures.

Teachers must often work in close proximity to students and adults. Teachers move around in their jobs (we rarely can sit behind a screen). And teachers work in unpredictable environments with many variables and changing conditions. We work with all developmental and age levels.

Given all of this, I think that advocating for the provision of PPE, including face shields and N95 respirator masks, makes sense for our union to do one our behalf. That’s my policy position. But there are other viewpoints as well. And the point of union democracy and engagement is to bring out all viewpoints and then to reach a decision together.

What I believe is most important is that we start these conversations now, that we widen the conversations to as many members as possible, and that we do so with compassion. It takes time and consideration to work through and develop good policy that works for the union membership as a whole.

I trust that the union’s leadership will continue to open up spaces for these discussions, reflect on new positions and levels of urgency as conditions change, and will look after the safety of all members as its top priority.

So let’s keep talking and listening to each other…