A new school year is right around the corner and with fresh concerns around the highly transmissible COVID-19 delta variant, B.C. teachers are renewing calls for a K–12 mask mandate.
“There’s a lot of concern,” B.C. Teachers Federation president Teri Mooring told Black Press Media. “When you look at the layers of protection, there are very few that we anticipate coming forward. So, we do think it’s important that across the board there be a kindergarten to Grade 12 mask requirement, including all education staff.”
That concern is based on rising COVID-19 infections in children being reported from multiple U.S. states like Texas, Louisiana, Georgia and Florida. Often, children infected with COVID-19 present milder symptoms than adults, but the delta variant is driving an increase in hospitalizations and severe outcomes.
Despite the increased risk of infection among children, Mooring says some of the safety measures in place last year – such as the cohort system – won’t be in place this year. The argument is that teachers will have a harder time keeping students socially distanced.
“We don’t want to see schools closed because of outbreaks or functional outbreaks. We’d rather see a cautious approach in place, which means those safety measures have to be there.”
Mooring said that the BCTF is supportive of regional measures for areas of the province with low vaccination rates and higher rates of COVID-19 infections like the Interior and Northern Health regions.
Last spring, the BCTF called on the province to increase vaccine access for teens aged 12 to 17 by hosting vaccination clinics in schools.
“That didn’t happen. Now we’re seeing a relatively low vaccination rate among those who are fully vaccinated. We’d like to see that higher and we’d like to see an emphasis put on that now so those children are fully vaccinated by the time school starts,” Mooring said.
Aside from masks and vaccines, one of the most effective ways to prevent COVID-19 transmission is ensuring classrooms have good ventilation.
The ministry of education says the province is investing $77.5 million through routine capital funding for HVAC system upgrades or replacements over the 2020-21 and 2021-22 school years. The B.C. government has also committed an additional $14.4 million for school districts to improve air quality in schools.
The BCTF is working with the ministry to identify and upgrade ventilation systems. In the meantime, Mooring says the ministry has agreed to support portable HEPA filter ventilation systems in classrooms, workspaces and schools with inadequate ventilation.
“It’s been a very laborious and slow process because the government doesn’t have any centralized information about ventilation in schools, so it’s a matter of contacting each school district and ascertaining the situation on the ground there,” Mooring said.
In a statement, the ministry said it is working to finalize plans to ensure the safety of students and staff across schools in B.C. and will be sharing further details in the coming days.
Students will return to classrooms on Sept. 7.
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