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  • Tracy Sherlock

Schools get stronger mask mandate, but teachers say it stops short

B.C. Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside announces changes to school safety guidelines, as Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry looks on. (Photo from BC Government.)

Students in B.C. middle and secondary schools will now be required to wear masks at all times in school, unless they are at their desk, behind a barrier or eating, but masks will still be optional for all elementary school students.

Before today, middle and secondary school students were only required to wear masks in crowded areas, like hallways. All school staff members must wear masks when they are away from their desks.

Changes were also made to rules around physical education – high-intensity classes should now be held outside – and music – masks must be worn when students are singing and instruments and equipment must be cleaned between users.

“We want students, their families and staff to feel confident with the safety measures in place. That's why we're making these updates,” said education minister Jennifer Whiteside.

The measures don’t go far enough for B.C.’s teachers, who have been asking for a full mask mandate in schools for months.

“Today’s changes will make schools safer and that is welcome news,” B.C. Teachers Federation president Teri Mooring said in a news release. “However, the changes do not include improvements to school density, ventilation, or the ongoing inadequacy of contact tracing. We need the government, school districts, and health authorities to step up and make improvements in those areas as well.”

As well as a stronger mask mandate, teachers would like to smaller class sizes to allow for physical distancing, improvements to ventilation and contact tracing.

More than half of B.C. teachers don’t feel safe with in-school teaching during the pandemic, a B.C. Teachers’ Federation survey found.

The survey, conducted via a random sample of teachers and answered by 4,186 teachers, found that 60 per cent of teachers say the health and safety precautions in their school are not adequate. Such a survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 1.4 per cent, 19 times out of 20.

“The BCTF will continue to push the government, districts, and health officials to do more to protect teachers, students, and the families we all go home to,” Mooring said.

B.C. Teachers' Federation president Teri Mooring said teachers will continue to push for more safety measures in schools. (Photo: BCTF)

The B.C. Green Party is also pushing for a stronger mask mandate, improved ventilation and contact tracing, reduced classroom density and more hybrid learning options for children to learn from home.

“…With the delay in the vaccine rollout and evolving and more contagious variants of COVID-19 detected in our province, I do wish we were taking a more precautionary approach when it came to the risk of airborne transmission, as evidence indicates there is a higher risk particularly in indoor, crowded, and poorly-ventilated spaces,” B.C. Green Party leader Sonia Furstenau said in a news release. “Likewise, the decision to base mask guidelines for Grade 6 and 7 students on whether they are in middle school or elementary, instead of their age, seems inconsistent with an evidence-based approach.”

Whiteside and Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry both emphasized that closing schools can have severe effects, which can last for children’s lifetimes. Dr. Henry also reiterated that there has been little spread of COVID-19 in schools, although there have been many exposures, including at least one exposure to one of the variants of concern.

Whiteside spoke directly to students, saying "Your generation will be fundamentally shaped by the experience you're going through right now ... I think you've been amazing."

School districts can now start to spend the second installment of federal funding, which is about $121.2 million, Whiteside said. That funding can be used to hire teachers and other staff, buy personal protective equipment, improve ventilation in schools and implement other measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

In addition, six regional rapid response teams will be created to improve the speed of school exposure investigations, the province said. A new health-checker app can be used to do the daily health checks in schools.

Another key finding in the teacher survey is that three-quarters of teachers say their workload has increased and more than one-third say the pandemic has made it more likely they will leaving teaching in the next two years. Even before the pandemic, B.C. had a teacher shortage, so if 30 per cent of teachers leave the profession, that will become more acute.

Eighty-three per cent of teachers say their mental health has worsened during the pandemic, and 53.4 per cent say the same about their physical health.

In terms of student learning, one-third of teachers said students’ emotional and social needs are not being met and one-half said students’ academic needs are only being moderately met.

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