The B.C. government is bringing back a requirement for students in Grades 4 to 12 to wear a mask in the classroom when schools resume next month.
The province is making the significant change to its back-to-school plan as the fourth wave of COVID-19 rages in the province, mainly infecting unvaccinated people.
All K-to-12 staff and visitors will still need to wear masks indoors, and now kids in kindergarten to Grade 3 will be strongly encouraged to wear masks.
Health authorities will also be able to introduce additional measures, specific to individual schools or districts, when community transmission rates are higher.
“We know how excited students and families are about being back in school with extracurricular and sports programs and how important it is for children to be connected to their teachers and friends on a full-time basis,” Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside said on Tuesday.
“We also know we can do this safely, even as the pandemic continues to present challenges. B.C. was one of the few jurisdictions in Canada to keep schools open and safe last year thanks to the monumental efforts of everyone in the education system.”
Notably, there will be no requirements for anyone in the school setting to get vaccinated.
In the same news conference, Dr. Bonnie Henry also announced a surprise return to mandatory masks for indoor, public places for the entire province, as COVID-19 fourth wave strengthens.
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There were 16 more COVID-related deaths over a 72-hour period ending Monday along with 1,711 new cases, spurred by the highly contagious Delta variant.
The province also pointed to research by the BC Centre for Disease Control that found a significant impact of remote learning on students, including interrupted learning, increased child stress, decreased connection, increased loneliness and mental and emotional health effects.
Studies by Vancouver Coastal Health and Fraser Health showed that after a resumption of in-class learning, schools were not significant sources of COVID-19 transmission.
The back-to-school plan still includes increased ventilation and improvements in schools, and daily cleaning and disinfecting protocols, along with a continued focus on hand hygiene.
Students will continue to be required to complete daily health checks and stay home when feeling sick.
Vaccines are mandatory for all B.C. long-term and assisted living staff, and a day earlier, Premier John Horgan announced B.C. will require proof of vaccination to attend recreational events and businesses, such as concerts, restaurants, sporting events, and more, as of Sept. 13.
Health authorities will target students, teachers and school staff in immunization campaigns over the coming weeks.
Almost 75 per cent of all eligible B.C. residents have received two doses of COVID-19 vaccine, while just over 83 per cent have had their first shot.
School districts will continue to ensure all ventilation and air conditioning systems continue to work properly, the province added in a news release.
As for post-secondary schools, there is also a new mask mandate for college and university campuses, and proof of vaccination will be required for some non-essential services, including those on campus.
“It’s vitally important for post-secondary students that we resume in-person learning to support young people’s well-being, and with these added measures and increasing vaccination rates, we are confident we can do so,” Henry said.
The mask order will apply in all indoor public areas on campus including lobbies, hallways, stairwells, elevators, classrooms and labs.
Students who are living in on-campus housing will also require proof of vaccination. Officials said further guidance is being developed in the coming days.