British Columbia will not require students from Kindergarten to Grade 3 to wear masks while in school because there are “many other” layers of protection.
“We still have many layers of protection in place in our schools and masking is one of those layers,” Dr. Bonnie Henry, the provincial health officer, said during a press conference on Tuesday in response to a question from the media about masks in schools.
B.C. only requires students in Grades 4 to 12 to wear masks, but not those in lower grades. However, there have been growing calls from parents and educators recently about the need to mask younger students — a demographic of the population that remains unvaccinated — as numerous schools deal with exposures and clusters of COVID-19 cases.
The Vancouver School Board on Monday voted to mandate masks for students in all grades, making the district the first in the province to implement such a requirement.
The decision not to implement a wider-ranging mask mandate province-wide comes on the heels of a recent U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that said schools in Arizona’s two most populous counties were 3.5 times more likely to experience coronavirus outbreaks if there was no mask requirement at the beginning of the school year, compared to those schools that did require universal masking on the first day.
“I think you can’t directly compare the report that came out of the CDC that looked at communities and schools without masks mandates and another of other factors that are protective factors,” Henry said Tuesday in response to the report.
COVID-19 testing in children has increased ‘dramatically’
Henry’s comments came at the end of a 40-minute press conference where she briefly touched on concerns around children and coronavirus cases in schools.
“We have seen an increase in the number of children in each age group (5-11, 12-17) diagnosed with COVID-19 in last week, compared to what we’ve been seeing in course of the pandemic,” she said.
B.C.’s top doctor said since school resumed three weeks ago, there has been a “dramatic increase” in the number of children being tested for COVID-19.
“That is something that we expected,” she said. “We saw that last year as well.
In fact, Henry said that over the past three weeks the province has gone from around 100 children per day being tested for COVID-19 to over 500 children per day.
“That tells us that we are seeing school-aged children having illness that leads them to be tested and that the testing has gone up quite dramatically,” she said, adding. “The test positivity has stayed lower or gone down in most cases but one area that we are still seeing that is high is in children aged 5 to 11, where it is around five to 10 per cent.”
Henry said while cases were increasing they are levelling off even as testing increases, adding that percent positivity is also decreasing in older children who are protected through vaccination as well as in the 0-4 age group. She also said case rates in school-aged children, both younger and older children, were increasing prior to school starting in both the Interior and Northern Health regions.
“This reflects the vaccination rates in those communities and the fact that we are seeing transmission of the virus in those communities and that, of course, affects families and it affects children and that has been translated into children in school settings who have tested positive for COVID-19,” said Henry.
In areas where vaccination rates have been higher, such as Vancouver Coastal and Island Health regions, Henry said the rates of infections in school-aged children were “low and steady.”
“We have seen an increase in some focus areas particularly in Fraser Health and one part of Island Health,” she said, later adding. “We have very high testing rates in north Vancouver Island, Central Vancouver Island and we did see an increase — although that is levelling off now in the percent positive — in these school-age children who are not yet eligible for vaccination.”
What this all means, said Henry said, is that the rates of infection in school-age children are reflected in the wider rates of vaccination in the community. She also said that vaccinated individuals are far better protected against the virus, but of all those who aren’t vaccinated, the case rate is lower in those ages 11 and under.
“Across all ages groups, we see that those who are not yet vaccinated have a much higher rate of infection than people who are protected through immunization that we have and of all the unvaccinated populations, the case rate is less in the 0-11 age group,” she said.