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Okanagan teachers feel lives ‘expendable’ as B.C. mask mandate excludes classrooms: union

Click to play video 'Why no mask mandate in B.C. schools?' Why no mask mandate in B.C. schools?
Deputy provincial health officer Dr. Réka Gustafson explains why masks are not required in schools even though they are now mandated in all other public indoor spaces – Nov 21, 2020

The union representing teachers in Penticton, B.C., said educators are “disappointed” and baffled as to why B.C.’s sweeping new COVID-19 mask directive won’t apply to school classrooms.

“It’s difficult to explain, not just to teachers but even to children, why they are wandering into a grocery store with their parents and they put on a mask, yet when they’re at school, surrounded by sometimes more people in a close, confined space, they don’t need to wear a mask,” said Kevin Epp, president of the Okanagan Skaha Teachers’ Union.

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

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry unveiled several new orders on Thursday, including mandatory masks in all public spaces and retail environments, to try to curb the spread of COVID-19 as case counts soar in Metro Vancouver, putting a strain on health care resources.

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However, school classrooms are not included in the mask-wearing mandate, as Dr. Henry said a school setting differed from a public space.

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

Epp begged to differ.

He said parents, community members, and outside contractors often enter schools.

“To say that there isn’t traffic, would be false in my experience,” he said.

Epp said teachers are contemplating why they require fewer health and safety measures than all other professions in B.C.

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

“They feel like their lives are expendable, or their health is expendable,” Epp said.

“We have people leaving teaching roles and saying, ‘I rather work at Starbucks or the grocery store where I have more protection.’”

Epp pointed out while secondary students are required to wear masks in common spaces like hallways, they recently switched cohorts, and masks are still an option in the classroom.

“All of those students just moved from two classes they were taking, where they were in a cohort, where they were told inside the classroom they didn’t have to wear a mask, and they moved — in the course of a day — into two new classrooms, with two new mixes of students, up to 30, and according to the PHO rules, they don’t have to wear a mask in those new settings.”

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Epp said educators are grateful to parents who are encouraging their children to wear masks at school — even though it’s voluntary.

“There are many, many families that are encouraging their kids to wear a mask to school and we applaud that — that is fantastic.”

On Nov. 20, the BC Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) issued a tweet calling on parents to help teachers “create a culture of mask-wearing” to “keep each other safe.”

Read more: Latest COVID-19 provincial health orders prompt City of Kelowna to adapt

The BCTF noted that some people cannot wear a mask for various reasons and there are some learning situations where masks aren’t appropriate.

“That’s ok. We have a lot of experience making sure people are included and treated with respect, But, let’s #maskup as much as we can,” the union said in a tweet.

While Penticton has been spared of COVID-19 school exposures, the Central Okanagan school system has experienced near-daily exposure notices.

Dr. Henry maintained that schools are a safe place for children, and despite the exposure events, transmission in the school setting remains rare.