Masks now mandatory inside middle and high schools in B.C. as rules expand

It is now mandatory for students in middle and secondary schools across B.C. to wear non-medical masks in all indoor areas of the school, as the province expands its health and safety protocols.

Non-medical grade masks must be worn in all indoor areas, the province announced Thursday, including while students are in their learning cohorts.

The B.C. Ministry of Education said masks can come off while students are at their workstation in the classroom, while a barrier — like a sheet of Plexiglas — is in place or while they’re eating and drinking.

Staff at elementary schools are included in the new mandatory mask rule, but elementary students are not. For them, masks remain optional.

Previously, students and staff were only required to wear masks in areas where interactions could not be controlled, like in libraries, hallways and on school buses.

WATCH B.C. Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry explains why masks aren’t mandatory at desks:

B.C.’s provincial health officer says transmission generally doesn’t happen when staff and students are sitting at their desks, and that it can be challenging for younger students to wear masks all day. 1:23

6 rapid response teams

The province also announced the creation of six regional rapid response teams — one in each health authority — to support independent schools across the province.

The teams, created with $900,000 in funding, will conduct physical and virtual inspections to ensure health and safety guidelines are being followed consistently.

Garibaldi Secondary School is pictured in Maple Ridge, B.C., on Monday. A person at the school tested positive for a more transmissible variant of the virus, but more than 80 people in that person’s cohort later tested negative. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

If there is a serious exposure or in-school transmission, teams will conduct a review and make recommendations to prevent the situation from happening again.

Henry said the teams will help public health find out what those schools need to manage an outbreak, as communication has proven difficult in the past.

“Particularly October, November, December, when we were having a lot of cases in communities … It was a very challenging time for public health,” she said.

Calls for more safety measures

The new mask mandate brings schools more into line with provincial health and safety guidelines. Masks have been mandatory inside every public indoor space in B.C. since November.

Parents and teachers have repeatedly called for more rules to help keep schools safer, including a mask mandate, since in-person classes resumed in September. A survey commissioned by the B.C. Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) earlier this week suggested more than half of teachers felt unsafe in the classroom during the pandemic.

“The announcement was good, but it still leaves a lot of holes that need to be filled in,” Annie Ohana, who teaches at L.A. Matheson High School in Surrey, B.C., said of the mask mandate.

Annie Ohana, who teaches at L.A. Matheson Secondary School in Surrey, B.C., said the mask mandate is welcome but said teachers still need more layers of protection. (CBC)

The BCTF said it was “relieved” to hear the new rules, but not totally satisfied. Left out of the new rules were requirements to improve ventilation, improve contact tracing, add widespread barriers and reduce class sizes to help with physical distancing.

Ohana said her school isn’t able to physically distance during class because the rooms are too small. She added modern-day classes aren’t always made up of students parked at desks reading textbooks, so the mask rule could be cumbersome.

“This idea that somehow we’re all in rows [at desks] and there’s no movement isn’t a reality,” she said.

Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside said the safety issues missing from new guidelines should be addressed with federal funding.

Ottawa allocated $242.4 million to help support B.C. schools last year. The first half of the money came in September and the second half arrived Jan. 29.

“There is absolutely anxiety among students and staff and their families in schools and across our communities. It certainly is our hope that the work we have done together collectively … that this does go some way toward making folks feel more secure and confident,” she said.

The new protocols did include stricter rules for physical education and music classes. High-intensity activities are to be held outside as often as possible and shared equipment can only be used if it is cleaned between use and kept two metres apart.

Masks must also be used while singing.

More than 90 per cent of all public school students are back in class, according to the B.C. School Trustees Association.

“We are not seeing transmission when students and teachers are in the classroom sitting at their desks,” Henry said. “Classrooms continue to be a low-risk setting.”

Henry has said throughout the fall that there was little transmission happening in schools. According to the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, 2,868 children under the age of 10 in the province had tested positive for the virus as of Tuesday — about four per cent of all cases in the province.

There was a close call this week after someone at Garibaldi Secondary School in Maple Ridge, B.C., was infected with a more transmissible form of the virus.

That person recovered. A total of 81 students and eight staff members who are in that person’s cohort were all tested to see if the virus had spread, and all of them tested negative.

Henry said the fact the variant didn’t spread at the school shows safety plans can work.

“I anticipate, as we continue to have spread in our communities, we will continue to experience exposures and that’s why it’s so important for us to update and reinforce the importance of these plans and these guidelines.”

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