Mount Baker Secondary School welcomes students back for 2021/22 this week. Barry Coulter photo

Mount Baker Secondary School welcomes students back for 2021/22 this week. Barry Coulter photo

Students head back for a second school year amid COVID-19

Staff and students continue to navigate the challenges posed by COVID-19 as school begins

Schools across the province are heading back into the fall semester this week, as staff and students continue to navigate the challenges posed by COVID-19.

The province recently announced that there will be a mask mandate for those in grades 4-12, while masks are strongly encouraged for the younger grades. Additionally, the province also removed cohort learning groups, which were deemed no longer necessary by public health as a COVID-19 mitigation measure.

Shelley Balfour, the president of the Cranbrook District Teachers’ Association, panned some of the provincial guidelines announced by Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside and Public Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry.

“The recent announcement by Minister Whiteside and Dr. Henry is more of the same except the lack of cohorts and a lack of mask mandate for students in Kindergarten to Grade 3,” said Balfour. “I am frustrated that the Minister didn’t just prescribe masks for all grades. Many of the students from grades 4-12 are able to get vaccines where the little ones are not. We have 3/4 splits – what happens there? It makes sense to me that the extra precaution should be in place especially with the Delta variant as prevalent as it is.”

Balfour also took issue with provincial guidelines on a lax cleaning frequency of high-touch areas.

The documents provided state that these areas will only have to be cleaned once in 24 hours,” she said. “As you know, there are a lot of body fluids in schools, especially in the primary grades and I am concerned that despite the diligence of the staff, there will be issues here. I will be requesting that our district go above and beyond the minimum requirements and support their staff and students to the maximum possible.”

The Southeast Kootenay School District (SD5) has it’s own communicable disease prevention plan posted on the district website. It outlines prevention measures for staff and students, while also outlining steps in decision-making processes in consultation between school staff, the BC Centre for Disease Control and Interior Health.

The plan emphasizes preventative measures such as hand-washing, sneezing and coughing etiquette and daily health checks. It also breaks down the roles and responsibilities of district staff, principals and staff, as well as providing an example of the decision-making process in collaboration with education and health officials if a school closure was deemed necessary.

In a letter to parents and staff, SD5 Superintendent Silke Yardley said the district is adapting to regulations from regional and provincial health authorities as needed.

“It is hard to believe that the end of summer is almost upon us and we are getting ready to welcome your children back to school,” wrote Yardley. “While many will be excited, we acknowledge that the start of this school year may be challenging for some.”

As students head back to classes on Tuesday, Interior Health announced that COVID-19 immunizations will be available directly on school sites across the interior region. However, as of Monday, Sept. 6, no schools were identified in Cranbrook on the Interior Health COVID-19 immunization website.

Based on the latest data from the B.C. CDC, for the 12-17 age range in Cranbrook, 64 per cent have had a first dose of COVID-19 vaccine and 50 per cent have had a second dose.