Give B.C. school districts the power to mandate masks, says teachers’ union

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The union representing B.C. teachers says it wants to see masks mandated in at least some schools when classes resume in September amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Speaking on CKNW’s Afternoon Show Thursday, BC Teachers’ Federation President Teri Mooring said the rise of the Delta variant and the fact that children under 12 cannot yet be vaccinated means additional safety measures need to be in place.

B.C. has currently imposed a regional mask mandate for indoor public places in the Central Okanagan, which is facing a COVID-19 outbreak.

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Mooring said she was hopeful the province would emulate that regional approach when it comes to schools.

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Read more: COVID-19: B.C. planning for ‘near-normal’ return for K-to-12 students this fall

“Erring on the side of caution is always important, and giving school districts and different regions the ability to be able to impose mask mandates, if necessary, is going to be important moving forward,” she said.

“We don’t have the same realities everywhere in the province,” she said, pointing to major variances in vaccination and case rates in different B.C. local health areas.

Masks in B.C. schools proved to be a flashpoint during the 2020-2021 school year.

They were not introduced to middle and high school students until February, and to older elementary school students until the end of March, when the province was in the grips of the third wave of the pandemic.

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B.C.’s back-to-school plan was last updated in June, and says “schools are anticipated to be able to return to close-to-normal by school start” due to projected lower case numbers and the widespread availability of vaccines for people aged 12 and older.

Health and safety measures under the plan would rely on people staying home when sick, daily cleaning, hand hygiene and “promoting the use of all available space in indoor common spaces.”

On Thursday, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said officials were watching the growth of the Delta variant closely.

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“What we are not seeing is increased rates of transmission among young children, and children under 12 in particular — we’ve not seen very many cases in that age group,” she said.

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Henry said the key to a safe return to school was the vaccination of as many people as possible, with the goal of curbing the transmission of the virus in the community.

“We have a lot of experience about this virus in school settings,” she added.

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Despite Henry’s assurances that younger children are not at high risk, Mooring said teachers remain anxious about returning to elementary school classrooms without more protections in place.

“People that worked in elementary schools were more vulnerable to getting sick with COVID than their counterparts in secondary schools,” Mooring said, noting that 75 per cent of WorkSafe COVID claims last year came from primary schools.

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“So that, coupled with the fact that students under 12 are not eligible for vaccines and the fact that the Delta variant seems to be so much more transmissible … that definitely is causing a lot of concern.”

Mooring estimated that more than 90 per cent of teachers had been vaccinated, but noted that vaccination remains voluntary and that there will always be staff who cannot get them for various reasons.

She said the union remains in discussions with the province about the year to come, and noted that “no decisions have been made.”

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