For months, students and staff in B.C. middle schools and high schools have had to wear masks in hallways and other common spaces. After pressure from teachers and some parents, the province has now expanded that mask mandate to include the classroom, but there’s a catch: students and educators can take their masks off when they sit down at their desk or table, or stand at their workstation.

“These are similar approaches to the requirements we have in offices or in restaurants where you wear a mask when you’re moving about, but not when you’re seated,” said provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry. “The same approach now applies to our schools. When students and educators are seated at their workstations, they may remove their masks.”

The B.C. Teachers' Federation argues it’s not a fair comparison.

“Students aren’t office workers, and don’t sit in a desk by themselves,” said union president Teri Mooring. “They sit at tables, they sit shoulder-to-shoulder at desks in rooms that are quite crowded. So it doesn’t make a lot of sense to us that there is no requirement to wear a mask when students are sitting at desks.”

Several students from Argyle Secondary School in North Vancouver who spoke to CTV News agree.

“In my science class we sit very close to one another, so if someone was sitting beside me without a mask I wouldn’t feel safe,” said Grade 12 student Callen Ashcroft.

Her classmate Emma McTaggart says the new mask mandate isn’t much different than the old one, and would like to see a bigger change. “Masks should be mandatory in schools all the time, whether you’re learning or sitting in the halls or your friends, they should be on all the times,” she said.

The teachers' union is also questioning why older students in K-7 elementary schools don’t have to wear masks at school, when middle school students in the same grades do.

Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside said it "makes more sense for kids to be subject to rules or guidelines that are consistent with the environment they’re in.”

But Mooring disagrees. “There are lots of situations in elementary school where there are different rules for older students than for younger students,“ she said. “This is presented as a much bigger problem from people who don’t actually work in classrooms than those that do.”

Student mask wearing in elementary school remains a personal choice. Guidelines are also being strengthened for P.E. and music classes, the education ministry announced. High-intensity physical activities must be held outside when possible and shared equipment can only be used when it's sanitized between each use.

In music classes, students playing instruments must be spaced out at least two metres apart and they must wear masks when singing.

Whiteside said keeping schools open "remains a priority" of the government and that COVID-19 transmission in schools remains low.

B.C.'s provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, said Thursday that low transmission shows how hard staff have worked to keep schools safe.

"We have seen exposures in our schools and we have reported on those exposures but we need to remember that these are reflections of what is happening in our communities," Henry said. "We've had very little spread within the school setting, particularly within the classrooms, and that is a testament to how safe these are being made by everybody in the school community."

Thursday's news conference also outlined how B.C. will spend its latest share of federal funds announced last week. A total of about $1 billion will be split across the country as part of Ottawa’s “Safe Return to Class Fund.”

A second installment of funding from Ottawa was received last week, with $101.1 million being given to school districts. Another $7.5 million will be given to independent schools and $3.5 million more will be used to manage COVID-19 exposures in schools.

As well, $8.2 million will be distributed to support Indigenous learners. Another $900,000 will be allocated for regional rapid response teams to speed up school exposure investigations.