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Surrey schools to beef up COVID-19 safety but mask mandate, class sizes remain unchanged

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As COVID-19 case numbers continue to trend in the wrong direction in B.C.'s Lower Mainland, Surrey schools are rolling out new enhanced safety measures but as Nadia Stewart reports, there's still no mask mandate and class sizes remain unchanged – Mar 13, 2021

As COVID-19 case numbers continue to trend in the wrong direction in B.C.’s Lower Mainland, Surrey schools are rolling out new enhanced safety measures.

The Surrey School District, B.C.’s largest, has also seen more exposures than any other. It has also been the site of multiple exposures involving COVID-19 variants of concern.

Read more: B.C. parents to protest school COVID-19 safety measures at health authorities’ offices on Monday

Teachers in the city have been pressing the province for months for measures that go above and beyond provincial guidelines, citing both the high rate of exposure and the district’s particularly crowded schools.

Specifics on the new plan have yet to be announced, but the district says it will include early dismissals, the potential for early start times in elementary schools and a reduction in team teaching by subject specialists.

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The plan also calls for increased vigilance during outdoor play to prevent students in different cohorts from mingling and cracking down on students and parents hanging around school grounds at end of day.

But parents and teachers say there is one glaring omission from the plan.

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READ MORE: Testing confirms 3 more COVID-19 variant cases at Surrey schools

“Until there’s a mask mandate, I don’t want to hear it,” Cindy Dalglish, president of the Ecole Woodward Hill Elementary parents advisory council, said.

“I’m really quite frustrated we don’t have a mask mandate here in Surrey specifically, knowing how overcrowded our classrooms are. I don’t know what else people need to say to get a mask mandate to happen.”

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B.C. began requiring middle and secondary school students to wear masks in indoor areas in February, but the mandate was not expanded to include elementary schools.

As for the staggered class time provisions, Dalglish said she’ll have to wait and see the details, noting that the plan unveiled Friday was scarce on details.

READ MORE: Surrey elementary school teachers walk in solidarity as concern around COVID-19 variants grows

Matt Westphal, president of the Surrey Teachers Association, echoed those concerns.

“I think (teachers are) feeling encouraged because there are some additional changes that will help to improve safety,” he said.

“But the big thing which teachers have been calling for, which is not in this plan, is the requirement to wear masks in elementary schools — that’s the big missing piece in this plan.”

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Westphal questioned why it took until March 2021 to bring in enhanced safety measures for Surrey schools, when teachers have been calling for many of the changes since before the school year started in September.

Teachers are pleased to see the province finally move away from a “one-size-fits-all” approach for all school districts and acknowledge that some, like Surrey, face increased pressures.

But he said he was also disappointed to see no provisions in the new plan for improved physical distancing in the classroom.

The Surrey School District says that despite the hundreds of exposures in schools, there has been little in the way of in-class transmission.

READ MORE: BCTF president blasts B.C.’s response as WorkSafeBC data shows COVID-19-related claims in schools

“This is a testament to the fact that our staff and students are protecting each other and following protocols consistent with public health guidelines and recommendations,” Surrey Board of Education Chair Laurie Larsen said in a media release.

“But our Board also recognizes that our community is dealing with a high burden of COVID-19 cases, and so we feel it’s prudent to introduce new targeted health and safety measures to further protect our staff and students.”

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The latest publicly-available data on school transmissions, released during the province’s December modeling update, showed just under 13 per cent of exposures in Surrey schools resulted in transmission.

Surrey School District superintendent Jordan Tinney is expected to release a video on Sunday with more details about the new safety measures.

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