Changes to school masks policies are being rolled out in School District 43 schools today with middle and high school students being told to wear masks everywhere except at desks.
While not mandatory, elementary students are being encouraged to wear the face coverings as well.
The new mask policy — announced by B.C. Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside and provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry Thursday, Feb. 4 — will be communicated to Coquitlam, Port Coquitlam, Port Moody, Anmore and Belcarra families this afternoon, while some schools may already be explaining the new expectations.
Here’s what you need to know.
WHY ARE NEW GUIDELINES NEEDED?
With new COVID-19 cases rising 24% in the Tri-Cities over the last half of January, school exposures continue to appear even as top health officials reiterate that schools are safe and transmission rates remain low.
Still, the reasons for updating the guidelines, according to Whiteside and Henry, were to deal with specific risky situations and to provide “confidence” to school communities.
“As the pandemic continues to evolve and as we learn more about its behaviour our school guidelines must evolve as well,” Whiteside said.
All middle and secondary students, as well as K-12 staff, will be required to wear non-medical masks in all indoor areas, including when they are with their learning groups.
The only exceptions are when sitting or standing at their seat or workstation in a classroom, where there there is a barrier in place, or while they are eating or drinking.
Previously, masks were only required for these groups in high-traffic areas, like hallways and outside of classrooms or in learning groups when they could not safely distance from others.
Now staff and students will have to wear a mask when they walk around a classroom or go in and out the classroom door, as well as in other places where people congregate.
Exceptions will be made for people who do not tolerate masks for behavioural or health reasons, and even with masks, physical distancing is still required.
WHAT DOES ‘ENCOURAGED’ MASK USE MEAN FOR ELEMENTARY STUDENTS?
For elementary students, wearing masks indoors remains a personal choice. However, the new policy removes the words “not recommended” and replaces them with “not required,” to “make it a little easier to have the mask encouragement where elementary schools feel they want to have it.”
That was the explanation provided by Stephanie Higginson, president of the British Columbia School Trustees Association, who attended Thursday’s press conference announcing the changes.
WHAT ABOUT P.E., MUSIC AND CHOIR CLASSES?
High-intensity physical activities are to be held outside as much as possible, and if required indoors, two metres of spacing is needed for activities.
Henry said “there are more guidelines now,” such as increased space and reduced student numbers because previously precautions weren’t always being taken when activities moved into a gym.
For example, activities that include “prolonged physical contact,” such as wrestling or partner dancing should be avoided. Lower risk activities, like tag or touch football, are permitted because students may only come into contact with each other briefly.
Shared equipment, including gym equipment, or musical instruments, must be sanitized between use and choir groups will have to wear masks when singing.
WHY NOT MASKS AT DESKS?
“Those are not high risk situations, and that’s not where we’re seeing transmissions in classrooms,” said Henry.
Education minister Whiteside pointed out that the new mask rules are similar to those in offices.
IS IT ENOUGH?
Although long in coming, the enhanced mask-wearing protocol is supported by Coquitlam Teachers Association president Ken Christensen who told the Tri-City News: “It’s not a gigantic shift in terms of this, it’s something we’ve been advocating for a long time, but it’s not like we’re going from zero to 100 miles an hour, there has been generalized compliance to encourage mask wearing since the beginning of the school year (in September).”
However, Christensen said not requiring masks at the elementary school level is unfair to elementary school teachers, who are not treated the same as their middle and secondary colleagues.
He believes elementary students are capable of understanding the need for masks and wearing them safely.
“I think elementary teachers would be rightly concerned that their situation isn’t fully apprehended by the minister or Dr. Henry. They are in close proximity with students all the time. Dr. Henry makes the claim that younger children are not strong transmission vectors, but it’s something that is still concerning.”
At the provincial level, BC Teachers’ Federation president Teri Mooring welcomed the new mask mandate as something “long overdue” but said more still needed to be done within a matter of days to keep schools as safe as possible from COVID-19.
Among further changes, Mooring called for reductions in school density, improved ventilation and steps to correct “the ongoing inadequacy of contact tracing.”
“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,” she said.
WILL IT BE ENFORCED?
The enhanced mask policy is not intended to be “punitive” according to Higginson of the BC School Trustees Association.
CTA’s Christensen said a “positive culture of mask wearing” is already in place in Coquitlam area schools and even posters have been placed in elementary, middle and secondary classrooms to be used as “talking points” with students.
SHOULD I BE WORRIED ABOUT THAT PORT COQUITLAM SCHOOL CLUSTER?
The policy is being introduced now, after concerns about dense classrooms and school safety was expressed by parents and teachers, and with multiple schools flagged for COVID-19 exposures, including Minnekhada Middle school, which was declared a cluster after transmission of the virus triggered the 14-day self-isolation of four classes.
While Henry didn’t name the school, she said she was aware of one cluster event: “that’s a small amount of transmission between a small number of students,” she said.
WHAT ABOUT THE VARIANTS?
While a new more transmissible U.K. variant — which has been identified in B.C. mostly through travel — was not the reason given for the new guidelines, Henry was asked to address the issue during the press conference.
She commented on someone having a “variable of concern” at a high school. No one tested positive for the variant at Garibaldi high school in Maple Ridge, although a rapid test came back as a false positive and had to be re-done using the standard PCR (molecular) test.
Those results, added Henry, give her team confidence “that the risk of transmission with the measures we have in place in our classrooms is very low.”