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BC Education: upping the requirement for masks in schools

Minor adjustment to mask-wearing policy.

Thursday February 4, 2021 | VICTORIA, BC [Last updated 6:15 pm]

by Mary P Brooke, B.Sc., Editor | Island Social Trends

Mask wearing is to be “a normal part of being in school”, said BC Provincial Health Officer Dr Bonnie Henry today in a high-profile announcement along with the Minister of Education and president of the BC School Trustees Association.

While masks have already been required in high schools as part of the COVID-19 Safe Schools guidelines for when people (students and staff) were in common areas like hallways, now masks are to be worn at all times in the school except when seated at a desk or eating.

But today’s announcement very likely will be falling flat for teachers, support staff and families in terms of increasing health and safety confidence in schools. It’s not much more than what common sense dictated up to now.

Updated checklist:

Dr Bonnie Henry, February 4 2021, mask
Dr Bonnie Henry removes her mask before speaking, February 4, 2021 in Victoria.

Also announced today: there is now an enhanced checklist for the health and safety guidelines regarding the COVID pandemic protocols, to be followed by teachers on the front lines but also overseen by school districts. Yet more guidelines, it’s a huge load on top of the professional work of teaching.

Still 10 percent of students doing remote:

Health Minister Jennifer Whiteside said that about 90 percent of all BC students are back in schools for face-to-face instruction and being offered the various aspects of learning that take place in schools. She is pleased about that. “There is simply no substitute for in-class learning,” said Whiteside.

But still 10 percent of students in BC are learning remotely at home. There were no specifics in today’s announcement about any changes to the remote delivery of K-12 education. The load for educators (and back-end IT) has been enormous since after the spring break in 2020, to enact a reasonable shift to support the delivery of remote learning.

Trustees president is on board:

BCSTA president, Stephanie Higginson
BCSTA president Stephanie Higginson about mask-wearing policy in BC Schools, February 4, 2021.

BC School Trustees Association (BCSTA) President Stephanie Higginson says “it’s monumental what’s happened in this school year”, with reference to all the changes that have been necessary in the school environment as well as everything for everyone throughout society on daily and larger levels.

After more than half the 2020-2021 school year now behind everyone in the system, she said there is now “a heightened sense of awareness about school safety” and also more awareness about “decency and kindness”.

That could be seen as a bit slow, but a big part of it has been waiting for data about COVID exposures in schools, which Dr Henry argued again today has been quite minimal; for BC’s top doctor the schools have been a safe environment for children during the pandemic. She noted that cases found among kids in school (mostly older teens), those have been found through contact tracing to have been about exposure in the general community, not in the school.

Funding update is money already earmarked:

Also today, the Education Minister announced that the other half of pre-promised federal funding (amounting to $121.2 million for distribution throughout the BC school system) is coming soon into the BC government coffers. School districts make decisions on how those funds are spent.

But if school districts make one-time improvements to school facilities there is then the ongoing maintenance costs, and there is no certainty yet that the BC Government will have funding increases in mind to cover that sort of expense (e.g. maintenance of new ventilation systems).

This was in fact a topic of discussion by the SD62 (Westshore & Sooke) school district, where there was an expressed reluctance to do facility upgrades if the ongoing maintenance budget could not be assured.

Political input from the BC Greens:

Today the BC Greens — led by Sonia Furstenau who is a former teacher — says that the party welcomes improvements to safety and the funding behind it, but is concerned that today’s announcement “will not clarify expectations” and will “potentially contribute to continued confusion within school communities”.

BC Green party leader, Sonia Furstenau
BC Green Leader Sonia Furstenau in the BC Legislative Assembly on December 8, 2020.

Furstenau noted in particular that today’s announcement did not include improvements to school density (small class sizes are safer during a pandemic), ventilation, and what she considers to be shortfalls in contact tracing.

With the delays in vaccine rollout, the Greens feel that a more precautionary approach should be taken to the airborne transmission of the COVID-19 virus.

As well, Furstenau points out that requiring masks in middle schools is not in alignment with age-based evidence, as some middle schools start at Grade 6 while others start at Grade 7.

Political input from BC Liberals:

Calling it a step in the right direction but falling short, BC Liberal Education Critic Jackie Tegart says that “parents, teachers, support staff and administrators are still asking the province to take more steps to increase safety and improve transparency”.

Tegart says more reporting is required about how the federal funding is being spent; school districts are responsible to decide but there appears to be no central listing of what improvements have been made in schools with use of the federal funds toward increasing “school cleanliness and safety”.

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===== LINKS:

COVID-19 Safe Schools (BC Government website)