Bernard Trest and his son Max, 10, are concerned about B.C.’s plan for students to return to the classroom in September. Trest is one of two fathers who filed a court application this week to prevent schools from reopening if stricter COVID-19 protections aren’t in place. (Contributed photo)

White Rock dad files suit against health, education ministries over back-to-school COVID plan

Bernard Trest and Gary Shuster say it’s ‘unconscionable’ to reopen schools without more risk mitigation

A White Rock dad who spoke out last month about concerns with the province’s back-to-school plan is now one of two fathers taking the government to court over the matter.

READ MORE: Not enough science to back return-to-school plan, says White Rock dad

Bernard Trest said Wednesday (Aug. 26) that the B.C. Supreme Court claim was filed on behalf of himself and Gary Shuster in Chilliwack that morning – and that the legal action shouldn’t come as a surprise to the leaders of B.C.’s health and education ministries.

“They must’ve known this was going to happen,” Trest told Peace Arch News.

“There’s no way you can introduce a plan this ridiculous and this dangerous and not know that someone is going to file a lawsuit against you and try to stop it.”

Ministry of Education officials on July 29 announced B.C.’s plan for a return to school in September, noting much of the plan will be up to individual school districts.

Under provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry’s guidelines, schools are to open with cohorts of up to 120 at the secondary level and 60 for elementary students. Face masks will be required for students and staff in middle and high school while in high-traffic areas, such as on buses and in hallways, but will be optional for elementary students.

In Surrey, the model put forward includes cohorts Supt. Jordan Tinney has described as “much smaller.”

READ MORE: Surrey high school cohorts to be ‘much smaller,’ Tinney says

According to Trest and Shuster’s notice of application, reopening without stronger risk-mitigation measures – including smaller class sizes, mandatory masking and physical distancing within groups – to protect students and teachers against COVID-19 is “unconscionable,” and they want the court to block the step from proceeding until such measures are in place.

“School boards don’t know how to handle this plan,” Trest said. “There’s really no plan in place.”

Trest – who started a Facebook page with his 10-year-old son Max last month to rally others with similar concerns – told PAN at that time that the science around COVID-19 does not back the return-to-school plan, and puts students at too great a risk.

Wednesday, he said that data released in the past month has only strengthened that position.

“Since we’ve spoken… there’s much more evidence, there’s much more science, and the government, they’re refusing to acknowledge it,” Trest said.

“There’s not a single one individual that’s said this plan is a good idea. Even (Prime Minister) Justin Trudeau… he’s questioning whether he’s going to send his kids to school.”

Six people, including Trest and Shuster, have filed affidavits in support of the court application.

Attorney Kailin Che of Early Sullivan Wright Gizer & McRae cited Trest’s “widely shared” concerns for his son and the community in explaining why her firm took on the case.

“Everyone in BC has an interest in seeing the province safe and healthy,” Che told PAN by email.

“We cannot reopen the economy and schools with insufficient measures in place. We cannot do nothing, and expect things to be okay. The old adage better safe than sorry rings more true during these exceptional times more than ever. It costs very little for the government to take the recommended precautions to keep schools safe.”

She noted that Early Sullivan Wright Gizer & McRae is also representing a B.C. doctor in a case filed a few weeks prior “dealing with similar concerns but on a broader level (not exclusive to schools).”

Wednesday morning, Trudeau announced a $2 billion ‘Safe Return to Class’ fund, “to help keep students and teachers safe as schools reopen.”

READ MORE: Feds roll out $2 billion to fund return-to-school safety amid pandemic

He described it as flexible funding that can be used for anything from hand sanitizer to remote-learning options, but exactly how it may be applied in individual districts – or how much, if any, each district might receive – is unclear.

“What (the provinces) choose to do is up to them… but we know there is more to do,” Trudeau said.

B.C. is to receive $242.36 million.

Health ministry officials were not immediately able to respond to a request for comment; Education Minister Rob Fleming, during a media briefing Wednesday afternoon, said he was “not aware” of the lawsuit.

A further statement from the education ministry notes the province has not yet been served with the lawsuit, “so cannot comment on the specific concerns it raises, and does not comment on matters that are before the courts.”

“We continue to be guided by the health and safety advice of Dr. Bonnie Henry and her public health team,” the statement adds.

– with files from Katya Slepian



tholmes@peacearchnews.com

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