A mask mandate has been expanded to include all B.C. students, which now covers students attending kindergarten to Grade 3, as those in older grades were already under the provincial health order.
Dr. Bonnie Henry, the Provincial Health Officer, along with Jennifer Whiteside, the Minister of Education, made the announcement on Friday, expanding the order province-wide after school boards in Vancouver and Surrey unilaterally made their own decisions to mandate masks for all of their students.
“This additional measure that we are putting in place today is one more layer that will ensure we can continue to engage and support children through this ever-changing pandemic,” said Dr. Henry. “We will continue to do this in a way that supports the positive aspects that children need to have to be able to wear masks effectively in these settings.”
There has been a steady rise of COVID-19 diagnoses in school-aged children, particularly in those aged 5-11 who are not eligible for immunization, said Dr. Henry, while referencing data released by the B.C Center for Disease Control last week.
“COVID-19 continues to circulate in our communities and schools reflect this,” said Dr. Henry. “More cases, clusters and outbreaks are occurring in communities where vaccination rates are lowest, and this has resulted in a number of additional regional orders…and regional interventions will continue to remain an important part of our approach in this phase of our pandemic.”
In addition to the expansion of the mask-mandate in schools, Dr. Henry also announced that there will be a monthly report issued by the BC CDC on school-related COVID-19 data. The first one is set to be published in mid-October.
Jennifer Whiteside, the BC Minister of Education, touted the expansion of the mask-mandate, noting that going into the third pandemic school year, educators are well-versed in adapting to, and managing, pandemic protocols.
“I know how much effort educators and school communities have put into creating positive cultures around mask wearing in schools,” Whiteside said.
“I think it’s been quite remarkable to see the degree to which in many schools students have really picked up on this notion of caring for one and other and doing everything that they can do as well to pitch in with the effort.”
Reversing course on public notifications of school exposures
In response to concern from parents, teachers and school communities, the province recently reversed course on withholding public notifications on school COVID-19 exposures — data that is now available on the Interior Health website.
In Cranbrook, potential exposures have been reported at a number of local schools, including TM Roberts, Kootenay Orchards, Mount Baker Secondary, Steeples Elementary, Kootenay Christian Academy and Jaffray Elementary & Jr. Secondary.
While Interior Health is now posting COIVID-19 notifications, an informal online database — the BC School COVID Tracker — had also been reporting numerous potential exposures at numerous local schools.
Shelley Balfour, the president of the Cranbrook and District Teachers’ Association, said the expansion of the mask mandate “does nothing” to alleviate the concerns of local membership.
“The mask mandate has very little effect as the children can choose not to wear the mask and there isn’t anything the teachers and/or school can do about it. So, continuing the mask mandate down to the 5-year-olds doesn’t really help,” Balfour said, in an email statement to the Townsman.
During Friday’s press conference, Dr. Henry walked through a hypothetical COVID-19 exposure.
“So a child has some symptoms, they’re taken for a test, the test result is usually within 24 hours,” Dr. Henry said, “and we now have a process where parents, or people who are tested themselves, are automatically notified, usually by text but it could be by email as well.”
From there, a case management team conducts contract tracing to find out where the child was and who the child was with during their infectious period — 48 hours before the onset of symptoms to 10 days afterwards. If contact tracing determines a child or staff was in a school setting, contact tracing investigates what kind of contact they had with others and what type of activities they were doing, before contacting other potential exposures and posting a public notification.
Balfour also raised concerns about transparency for teachers who may or may not be informed about a student who is deemed a potential exposure in their classroom.
“Local membership, especially in the elementary schools right now, are incredibly frustrated and stressed because of the secrecy around COVID in the classrooms,” Balfour said. “Teachers teaching on call, and classroom teachers need to know they are as safe as possible to go to work. Not knowing that a child and/or family in their classroom has had a positive test, is not safe or respectful to those working in the schools trying to keep them open.”
Balfour is also pushing for locking down schools where staff, parents, and students have to truthfully complete the health check to enter the premises.
“I have heard of folks pretending their children have allergies when they actually have symptoms of COVID so the children can still be with their friends,” said Balfour. “I am not okay with that.”
In addition to transparency, Balfour also raised concerns that no new provincial funding was announced for daytime custodians in elementary schools or HVAC systems.
Balfour also recently raised concerns about lack of daytime cleaning in elementary schools, however the district representative says it is currently fulfilling the cleaning protocols as required by the province.
“Districts can always go above and beyond the mandate, but it is also a failure of the province for not supplying extra funds to make this happen,” Balfour said.
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