Why do I wear a mask at school?

I wear a mask at school because I am a teacher.

My first professional duty is to protect the health and safety of my students. Non-medical cloth masks help prevent the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19. By wearing a mask, I can do my part to protect the students at my school (and other staff members as well).

When recently interviewed on CBC’s Daybreak North about teachers’ calls for N95 masks and face shields, the host Carolina de Ryk asked me if I felt safe at school. My answer was “yes” – because if not, I would not be there. As with all workers, I have a right to a safe and healthy workplace.

But more importantly, I told Carolina that I believe that my school is safe for the students in my classroom. If not, I’d have a professional duty to speak up and say so. At this stage of reopening, with few students actually attending in-person school, I certainly do believe that my classroom is safe for me, my students, and my co-workers. But when school reopens more, perhaps as soon as this September, even more safety measures may be required.

Given the teacher’s professional duty to protect student safety and well-being at school, it’s important for the B.C. Teachers’ Federation (BCTF), a union of professionals, to not only continue to advocate for the safe reopening of public schools but to also provide teachers and communities with more professional guidance for schools. The over 43,000 teachers in B.C. can, by working through our union, set standards for schools in terms of student safety and the equitable provision of education during the pandemic. (Read more about recommendations for the BCTF to develop teacher-led professional guidelines for schools here.)

I am doing my part. Will government do its part, too?

The government should provide all teachers and educators with the PPE we need to protect students and ourselves alike, specifically to provide educators with N95 respirator masks and face shields. N95 respirator masks protect both the wearer and those around them. This is how to safely reopen schools and to get students back to learning and teachers back to teaching.

If provided this PPE from the government I’d know that I was not using PPE reserved for health care and other essential workers. I’d be using PPE reserved specifically for educators, just like the teachers and educators in California whose government is purchasing 2.4 million face shields for their protection – and to protect students.

All teachers and educators should have these and other protective measures available to them – provided by their employer. The option to use PPE should should be accessible and supported for all essential workers during this pandemic.

For some teachers and educators, the only safe option will be workplace accommodations due to need. For others, a face shield and/or N95 respirator mask, along with physical distancing and hand washing will provide the protection needed. And for others still, masks or face shields may not even be an option, such as for people who cannot wear a mask for medical reasons.

Employers must therefore do more that provide PPE. They must also work with individual educators to find individual solutions for keeping both educators and students safe at school.

Why am I a teacher?

One of my professional duties is to protect the safety and well-being of my students at school. Another duty is the equitable provision of public education to all my students.

I am a teacher because public education is empowering. Education is learning how to think for yourself, be a member of a democratic and equitable society, speak up for your rights, discover and know yourself, know how to protect your rights (and those of your community), and be a productive and powerful member of your society. It is a human right that all children are entitled to. And that is why I am teacher.

For me, this right must be provided in ways that respect the community and the place itself, which is why so much of my teaching is based on listening to students, families, and community members. The promise of public education is the universal provision of community-centred education for all students.

As a teacher, I work tirelessly to animate this promise for all the students in my community. Thankfully, I am not alone. There are countless other teachers and educators, families, community members, advocates, and students who work together to fulfill the promise of public education.

We can provide both: Safe schools. Public education.

During COVID-19 we must achieve two things at once. We cannot choose one over the other. The achievements cannot be balanced between each other. Both must be fully realized. These are:

  • Reopen schools safely and get back to in-person teaching and learning for the vast majority of students.
  • Provide all students with a rigorous and meaningful education.

Public education is essential. It is essential because students rely on many of the services it provides, such as a safe place, access to healthy food, caring relationships, and supervision. Core to all these services is the provision of education: Literacy. Knowledge. Critical thinking. Numeracy. Inquiry. Connection. Meaning. Being true to oneself. This is what’s at stake when schools are closed.

There are many ways for students and families to be supported. For some, learning at home is the best option. But for the vast majority of students, teaching and learning at school works best. That is why reopening schools safely for all students and educators matters so much now. Together, we can do both: Reopen schools safely. Provide students with education.

Twitter: @tomkertes

About Tom Kertes

Tom is a founding organizer of the Critical Education Project.

Read more about Tom Kertes.

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