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No mandatory masks in B.C. schools despite sweeping new COVID-19 orders

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The BCTF says it will be using the Labour Relations Board process to troubleshoot enforcement issues since the province's new mask mandate doesn't apply to schools. Richard Zussman reports.

British Columbia’s sweeping new mask mandate won’t apply to the province’s school system.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry unveiled several new orders to try and curb soaring COVID-19 case numbers, including new rules requiring masks to be worn in all indoor public spaces.

At her Thursday briefing, Henry sought to explain how the school setting differed from a “public space” such as a store or government office.

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Experts discuss claims by B.C. premier that kids cannot spread COVID-19

Read more: COVID-19-stricken B.C. school ‘should have been closed a week ago,’ say parents

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“Schools are not public, open spaces — you cannot go walk into a school,” she said.

“We have layers of measures of protection in place in schools and like I wouldn’t wear a mask sitting in my office, we don’t expect children to wear masks sitting at their desks all day long.”

Henry maintained that schools remain a safe place for children, and said while there have been a number of exposure events, insisted there had been little in the way of transmission in the school setting.

According to the province’s Nov. 12 COVID-19 modelling update, there had been 261 exposure events in B.C. schools, 175 of them in the Fraser Health region and 63 in the Vancouver Coastal Health region.

That same day, Henry said there had been fewer than a dozen cases of transmission.

Read more: Coronavirus: List of B.C. school exposures

 

Henry did, however, acknowledge complaints from parents and teachers about poor communication on the part of health officials around COVID-19 in schools.

Parents at Surrey’s Cambridge Elementary, which was closed amid an outbreak, said the speed and quality of information from officials was so poor they turned to Facebook to do grassroots contact tracing.

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The BC Teachers’ Federation has also complained about inconsistent definitions of exposures, outbreaks and clusters across districts.

Henry said Thursday she was deploying a deputy minister to the Lower Mainland to “to try and manage and improve that situation.”

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The deputy will work with the Vancouver Coastal Health and Fraser Health authorities to “have a coordinated approach to identifying and managing school exposures and outbreaks quickly, and to improve our ability to communicate and to manage these events together,” she said.

In a statement posted to social media, the BC Teachers’ Federation said it was disappointed in the decision not to mandate masks in schools.

“We continue to say to teachers, wear masks. Work with your colleagues to create a culture of mask wearing. Model it in your classes,” the union said.

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Read more: B.C. considering extending winter school break to deal with COVID-19 spread

We cannot control the decisions made by the PHO, but we can take charge of our own workspaces the best we can. Let’s #maskup and protect each other and encourage students to do the same.”

While masks are not mandatory in classrooms, they are mandatory for older children in shared spaces such as hallways.

Parents and caregivers are also being asked to take extra care when picking up and dropping off children to help them avoid clustering and socializing with others.