Provincial health officer explains TV commercial that drew teachers' union criticism

Dr. Bonnie Henry said the television spot was not intended to demonstrate what the typical classroom will look like, but was an opportunity to speak to parents and children about their concerns for the upcoming year and allay any anxieties they may be having.

B.C.’s provincial health officer says a TC commercial criticized by the BC Teachers’ Federation wasn’t meant to be reflective of what classrooms will actually look like when school resumes in September.

Full-time, in-class instruction will resume across all 60 school districts using cohorts (a limited number of students in groups that will stay together through the year — a maximum of 60 in elementary and middle schools and a maximum of 120 in secondary schools) and other safety protocols to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in 2020-2021.

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In the commercial, Dr. Bonnie Henry speaks to a class of about six children about those measures, telling students they will be washing their hands a lot, sticking with the same group of people and, at times, wearing masks.

BCTF president Teri Mooring characterized the ad as an unrealistic depiction of what classrooms are going to look like in September. She said most classes will have about 30 students, so physical distancing won't be possible.

"I think what parents and teachers are really looking for is that reassurance to come from the restart plan," Mooring said, adding school districts should be given federal funding announced last week so they can hire more teachers in order to have smaller classrooms.

The Ministry of Education earlier responded to the union's criticism by saying the number of students in the commercial was kept low in keeping with physical distancing requirements.

Asked during a press conference on Monday if teachers have a legitimate argument about the commercial, Henry said the television spot was not intended to demonstrate what the typical classroom will look like, but was an opportunity to speak to parents and children about their concerns for the upcoming year and allay any anxieties they may be having.

“What that was, was me as the public health officer, talking with children and their parents about what they can expect in the new school year,” Henry said.

She said there were more than six children in the room and it was their choice for the commercial to be a classroom setting. She also noted everyone had masks and some of the youth wore theirs at times.

Upon watching the commercial, Kamloops-Thompson school board chair Rhonda Kershaw said that while the visual may not have been representative of what a classroom will look like, the filming conditions were not either. She said she suspects they were more like those of a gathering, which happens irregularily and with inconsistent participants whereas classrooms will have consistent cohort groups that will allow for a safe return of students and staff.

Health Minister Adrian Dix said the commercial was aimed at delivering a public health message consistent with the plan that has already been announced, not a public policy debate.

"I completely respect the concerns of parents, the concerns of teachers, the concerns of students," he said.

"It's not central casting. It's a conversation between the public health officer and children and, in that sense, I think it's useful."

The teacher’s union has been calling for changes to the province’s return to schools policy, including smaller cohort sizes and a mask mandate for staff and students over the age of 10.

—with files from Canadian Press

—this story was updated Sept. 2 to add comment from board chair Rhonda Kershaw

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