The province is increasing the amount of time that students must wear non-medical masks while in schools during the pandemic.
In an announcement Thursday (Feb. 4), education and health officials said that masks will be mandatory in middle schools and high schools except for three scenarios: when students are at their own desk or workstation, when they are eating or drinking and when there is a plexiglass barrier between them.
That means that masks will be required even when students are only interacting with their learning groups, which can include up to 120 students for high schools. The rules originally introduced in September only required students in middle and high schools to wear masks in high traffic areas such as hallways, and only outside of learning groups.
Masks will now also be mandatory for middle and high schools students who are singing in music classes, while those playing instruments must be at least two metres apart. For physical education classes, high intensity activities must be held outside “as much as possible.” Any shared equipment, such as treadmills, weights and musical instruments, can only be used if they are cleaned between use.
The province said that any activities that include “prolonged physical contact should not be a part of physical education or any other classroom learning.” Examples of allowed activities include tag or touch football, since physical contact is limited, while activities like wrestling or partnered dancing are “should be avoided.”
Masks will remain a “personal choice” for elementary school students. Speaking at a press conference Thursday morning, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said that the decision was made because young kids do not appear to develop severe disease as a result of the novel coronavirus, and that it’s difficult for children to wear masks properly without fiddling with them.
Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside said that the messaging on masks for elementary school students has now changed from “not recommended” to “not required,” making it easier to children who can handle masks to wear them.
Whiteside said that while infection rates in schools have remained low, rules have to adapt. Whiteside said that even though masks are now mandatory in more areas at school, it’s still important that sick students stay home.
“We’ve had very little spread within the school area, and particularly within classrooms,” Henry said. She said however that a student infected with the U.K. variant in a Maple Ridge school was of concern to B.C., and that it reflected the transmission of that variant in the wider community.
When asked about why students don’t need to wear masks at classrooms, Henry said that it’s a “low risk scenario” and that B.C. has not seen transmission from such behaviour. She also said that school rules also mirror rules in other locations, such as restaurants, where masks don’t need to be worn while seated.
The province has also announced $900,000 for six regional rapid response teams, one for each health authority and one for independent schools. The teams will be made up of school representatives from schools and provincial staff. The province said they will help speed up school exposure investigations to inform school districts and families more quickly. The teams will conduct physical or virtual site inspections to ensure K-12 COVID health and safety guidelines are being followed consistently.
The province is also allocating $101.1 million to school districts and $7.5 million to independent schools and providing school districts an additional $3.5 million to manage COVID-19 exposures in schools, as well as $8.2 million to support Indigenous students.
The funding comes from the second instalment of a total of $242.4 in federal education funding that Ottawa announced before schools opened this fall.
B.C. Liberal interim leader Shirley Bond said the opposition wants some of the federal funds directed to improving ventilation in schools, an early recommendation from public health officials.
“We have seen very little detail about what the government’s priorities are for the use of that funding,” Bond said. “We’re glad to see that some steps have been taken, but it’s halfway through the school year and parents have been concerned about this for quite some time.”
The B.C. Teachers’ Federation said it was happy to see expanded mask mandates in schools, but that more needed to be done.
“The changes do not include improvements to school density, ventilation, or the ongoing inadequacy of contact tracing,” president Teri Mooring said. “We need the government, school districts, and health authorities to step up and make improvements in those areas as well. More can be done to protect teachers, other education workers, students, and the families we all go home to. The employer and health officials have the power to take those steps.”
Schools districts and independent schools will have to ensure that all facilities are following the amended COVID rules by Feb. 26.
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