With just weeks to go before British Columbia students return to the classroom, the union representing teachers is escalating its call for tougher COVID-19 protections.
New cases in B.C. have been rising exponentially, driven by the now dominant Delta variant, primarily among the unvaccinated.
With children under 12 still ineligible for the vaccine, and immunization rates lagging in those aged 12-17, the B.C. Teachers’ Federation says the province needs to go above and beyond last year’s school protocols.
“We’re really concerned about the high case count in B.C. right now that continues to go up,” BCTF president Teri Mooring said.
“We’d really like to see some really strong safety measures in place in this coming school year.”
The union is calling for a province-wide mandatory mask mandate for everyone in B.C. schools, including all K-12 students and all adults in school buildings.
Mooring said last spring’s mask mandate, which only covered kids Grade 4 and up, didn’t go far enough. With kids under 12 still unable to be vaccinated, she said it’s of particular concern.
Should some B.C. regions see sustained low case numbers, Mooring said the province could then roll back the mandate on a district-by-district level.
“We think that’s a common sense approach,” she said.
Along with a mask mandate, the union says the province needs to improve ventilation in schools.
It is also calling for a stronger testing regime in B.C., expanded to include asymptomatic tests.
And it wants vaccination clinics in schools, for kids old enough to get their shot.
“We really are concerned about the low vax rates among the 12-17 year olds,” she said. “Access is very important, we want to see a comprehensive strategy.”
Asked if the BCTF would support mandatory vaccinations for B.C. teachers, Mooring would only say that a high percentage of educators are already immunized.
“I’m confident that we’re vaccinated, we really need to focus on the younger students,” she said.
British Columbia is expected to unveil its revised back-to-school plan next week.
The plan, which was last updated in June and anticipated schools would “be able to return to close-to-normal by school start,” was written prior to the Delta-driven surge in new cases.
Health Minister Adrian Dix would not confirm specifics about the revised plan, including whether it would follow Washington state’s lead in mandating vaccines for school staff, nor whether masks would be required for students.
“The guidelines for this year are being updated with the circumstances. We make changes based on the circumstances, and that is the work that is occurring now,” Dix said.
He said the province remained committed to two priorities: ensuring safety, and allowing children to return to in-person learning “with a sense of normalcy.”
Earlier this week, the independent BC COVID-19 modelling group released a projection showing cases and hospitalizations could top their third-wave highs by September, and warned that unvaccinated youth could be particularly affected.