The Ministry of Education revealed the details of the COVID-19 safety measures being put in place across B.C. for the upcoming school year.
During a live press conference, Jennifer Whiteside, Minister of Education, announced that masks will be required for all K-12 staff, visitors and students in grades 4 to 12 in indoor settings.
As part of the upcoming school year, students can expect to return to full-time, in-person learning while also resuming sports, music and other extracurricular activities.
“We know how excited students and families are about being back in school with extracurricular and sports programs and how important it is for children to be connected to their teachers and friends on a full-time basis,” said Jennifer Whiteside, Minister of Education. “We also know we can do this safely, even as the pandemic continues to present challenges. B.C. was one of the few jurisdictions in Canada to keep schools open and safe last year thanks to the monumental efforts of everyone in the education system. The precautions we are announcing today allow students to continue learning in school with safeguards in place, so they have every opportunity to achieve their best.”
For some, like Langford mom Karyn Theeparajah, the precautions don’t go far enough. She is pleading with the province to make masks mandatory for all students, from Kindergarten through Grade 12.
“My son in Kindergarten he was the only one out of 20 kids that wore a mask all year, and the reason we did that is because we had a newborn and I was very nervous,” Theeparajah said. And she wasn’t the only one disappointed.
“Really it could’ve been great if we could have just started K to 12 everybody wears masks all staff all students all places and that’s not what we heard today,” said Greater Victoria Teachers’ Association President Winona Waldron.
But B.C.’s provincial health officer said masks can be a challenge for young children.
“We know that there are challenges for young people in wearing masks and our approach will continue to be that supportive encouraging mask environment with the younger students,” said Dr. Bonnie Henry.
Henry says the most important thing to keep young children protected is to make sure everyone around them is vaccinated, yet today there was no vaccine mandate issued for teachers or school staff. It’s a move even the B.C. Teachers’ Federation said it wouldn’t have opposed.
“The BCTF wouldn’t oppose a mandatory vaccine program, we would need to look at the details of any proposal of course because we need to protect our member privacy,” said President Teri Mooring.
While Mooring says uptake has been high among teachers, she says the greater concern is among 12 to 17-year-olds. The province announced today that while 72 per cent of that age group has received one shot, only 57 per cent are fully vaccinated heading into a new school year.
“We were hoping to hear more about school based vaccination clinics, we would like to see them set up now and in September,” Mooring said.
The province says that there will be continued increased ventilation and improvements in schools while also implementing daily cleaning and disinfecting protocols.
Whiteside added that students will continue to be required to complete daily health checks and stay home when feeling sick.
Building off of the protocols from last year, rapid response teams will continue to operate throughout B.C., working with health authorities and school districts to provide support and review school communicable disease plans to keep schools safe.
“We know last school year was challenging in many different ways for B.C. students, but they persevered and finished the school year strong,” said Dr. Bonnie Henry, provincial health officer. “While we are encouraged to see rising vaccination rates in most parts of the province, we need every eligible British Columbian, including children and youth aged 12 to 19, to receive vaccinations as they begin the new school year.”
The government notes that individual health authorities will have the ability to introduce additional regional measures specific to schools or districts in instances where community transmission rates are higher.
To date, a total of $87.5 million has been used to improve school ventilation in B.C. schools, including $77.5 million through provincial routine capital funding specifically for heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems.
All school HVAC systems will continue to be regularly inspected and, moving forward, provincial funding will continue to be made available to upgrade or replace HVAC systems through routine capital programs.
According to B.C. health officials, the updated provincial K-12 communicable disease guidelines were developed in collaboration with the BCCDC, Office of the Provincial Health Officer and K-12 education steering committee, which includes rightsholders and education partners.
“As part of your back-to-school preparations, we encourage youth to walk in now to get vaccinated at one of B.C.’s vaccination clinics, or go to a pop-up or mobile or community vaccine event around the province,” said Dr. Penny Ballem, executive lead of B.C.’s immunization effort. “As students, parents and families prepare and plan for back to school, they can take advantage of the many locations and opportunities to receive a first or second dose. It’s more convenient than ever to get a COVID-19 vaccine.”
Additionally, the Province says health authorities will also put a focus on students, teachers and school staff for vaccination campaigns over the coming weeks.
For more information on the new guidelines, click here.