Parents and teachers want stronger COVID-19 measures even as B.C. mask order expands to all students

Starting Monday B.C. students from kindergarten to Grade 3 will be required to wear masks in school. The province expanded the mask order, originally aimed at students from Grade 4 to 12, following pressure from parents, teachers, and school districts.

A delayed decision

The union representing teachers in the province has been calling for mandatory masks for months.

“We’re really happy it’s in place,” said Teri Mooring, president of the British Columbia Teachers’ Federations (BCTF). However, Mooring is disappointed the provincial health officials failed to make the decision sooner.

“At this time of year, it’s a change. One that you have to work with families around and that you have to work with children around,” Mooring said. “Had we started the school year with a kingergarten to Grade 3 mask mandate, it would have been a lot easier for primary teachers.”

Some parents are echoing that criticism, calling it an example of the province failing to take a proactive approach to combating COVID-19 in the school setting. Cases of the virus have climbed since the beginning of the school year, with students under the age of 12 still unable to be vaccinated.

“We should have focused on them and we should have taken the extra steps to protect them for as long we can, until the vaccines are made available,” said Rina Diaz, president of the Surrey District Parents’ Advisory Council.

Learning from other provinces

While more kids wearing masks should help slow the spread of COVID-19, some feel cases of the highly contagious Delta variant will continue to climb unless additional measures are adopted. In Ontario, a province with roughly one quarter the number of active cases per capita compared to B.C., air purifiers complete with high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters have been added to thousands of classrooms, to reduce airborne spread of the virus.

“If we can see Ontario doing it, why are we not doing it?”, asked Diaz. “We want to see that for our children here.”

“B.C. needs to look to Ontario and recognize what needs to be done here to prevent this virus from spreading,” said Jennifer Heighton, a Burnaby-based elementary school teacher.

In Nova Scotia, families of children in Grade 6 and under have access to rapid testing. Health officials in that province are asking parents to use the free test kits if their children are experiencing mild symptoms related to COVID-19. B.C. does have a stockpile of rapid test kits, though the exact number is unclear. Heighton believes it would be wise to bring some of those kits into the school system.

“I absolutely think they could be used as a way of catching people who are infectious. You might be infectious but not know it yet, and the rapid test would catch that.”

“It’s hard to explain to both teachers and families why we aren’t taking a more preventative approach like we see in other jurisdictions,” added Mooring.

Communication concerns

Safety protocols aside, Heighton is concerned by an apparent inaccuracy in reporting COVID-19 exposures. B.C. has begun sharing information around possible exposures to the virus in schools province-wide, similar to last year. However, Heighton says the numbers don’t appear to tell the whole story.

“We’re noticing there are a lot of classes that have had (COVID-19) cases, but they aren’t on the website yet, and we don’t know why.”

Heighton says parents are relying on crowdsourcing, like the BC School COVID-19 Tracker website, for an idea of the COVID-19 situation in schools.

“Over 400 cases were reported on the (COVID-19 tracker) website alone. That’s just from parents who know where to send it in.”

The expanded mask requirement will be in effect at least until January. Meanwhile, Pfizer plans to file a formal submission to Health Canada in mid-October, for the use of its vaccine in Canadian children aged 5 to 11.