Students, teachers and administrators will now be required to wear masks in B.C. classrooms.
This includes all middle and secondary students and K-12 staff and they must wear non-medical masks in all indoor areas, including when they are with their learning groups.
They are permitted to take off their masks only when sitting or standing at their seat or workstation in a classroom, if there is a barrier in place or when they are eating or drinking.
For elementary students, wearing masks indoors remain a personal choice.
“To make sure schools continue to be as safe as possible for students and staff as the pandemic evolves, we have worked with provincial health and our partners on a continuous review of the guidelines, adapting and responding when needed,” Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside said.
“We want students, their families, and staff to feel confident with the safety measures in place – that’s why we are making these updates.”
Before making these changes, the province required masks in middle and secondary schools for all students and K-12 staff in high traffic areas, like hallways, and outside of classrooms or learning groups when they could not safely distance themselves from others.
The province describes these updates are part of the ongoing work of the provincial education steering committee and are in alignment with provincial health updates.
Guidelines have also been strengthened for physical education and music classes. High-intensity physical activities are to be held outside as much as possible. Shared equipment or items such as weight machines, treadmills, or musical instruments can be used only if they are cleaned between use, according to strict school sanitization guidelines.
Students using equipment or playing instruments should also be spaced at least two metres apart, and masks are to be used when singing.
“Educators, administrators and staff have done a great job of adapting our schools to make them safe and ensure important in-class learning continues,” Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said.
“Since the start of the school year, we have paid close attention to our schools and learned much, including the importance of having robust safety plans and using the layers of protection. Masks are one important layer and these updated guidelines will strengthen how and where they should be used to protect everyone.”
The BC Teachers Federation says overall teachers will be ‘relieved’ with the new policy but there were ‘some steps’ not taken.
The BCTF have been calling on the province to implement a clearer mask mandate in schools.
“BC teachers have been pushing for critical improvements to the health and safety guidelines in our schools since they were first implemented in September,” BCTF president Teri Mooing said.
“These changes are long overdue and took a tremendous amount of advocacy from our members and representatives on the government’s steering committee and working group.”
The union supports the stronger mask mandate for middle and secondary schools, the removal of the term “not recommended” for mask wearing in elementary schools and the additional guidance for physical health education and music classes.
Mooring says the changes do not include improvements to school density, ventilation, or the ‘ongoing inadequacy of contact tracing’.
They are still concerned about the stronger mask mandate not applying to elementary students and no change in the cohort model.
“We need the government, school districts, and health authorities to step up and make improvements in those areas as well,” Mooring said.
“More can be done to protect teachers, other education workers, students, and the families we all go home to. The employer and health officials have the power to take those steps.”