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Most B.C. students head back to class for 1st time since end of mask mandate

Click to play video: 'B.C. students head back to school with no mask mandate' B.C. students head back to school with no mask mandate
Spring break is over and thousands of B.C. students will be returning to class Monday with no mask mandate in place and as Grace Ke reports, that has some concerned. – Mar 27, 2022

Monday will mark the first day of school for most B.C. children since the province lifted its COVID-19 mask mandate. Teachers and parents are trying to prepare for the new reality.

At Surrey’s L.A. Matheson Secondary, Indigenous department head Annie Ohanna is preparing what she hopes is a “safe” environment for the kids, whether  they do or don’t choose to mask up.

Read more: Two weeks after dropping mask mandate, B.C. faces calls to mask back up

“We don’t want kids to feel pressured to not wear their masks. If you need to wear a mask, you are free to do so. A lot of staff are probably going to be wearing their masks as well. I am immunocompromised so that’s going to be a big one for me,” she told Global News.

“The idea is we’re in an environment where we take care of each other, health first, so if … you don’t want to wear the masks that’s OK, there’s no mandate. But we also want to make sure that kids and staff that wear their masks are free to do so as well.”

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British Columbia eliminated its mask mandate on March 11, citing declining hospitalizations and case numbers, however most students have been away on spring break since then.

Click to play video: 'Encouraging mask-wearing after spring break' Encouraging mask-wearing after spring break
Encouraging mask-wearing after spring break – Mar 26, 2022

Throughout the pandemic the province has maintained that schools are a low-risk environment with limited transmission — an assertion supported by at least one recent study of Vancouver students.

However, vaccination rates among children aged five to 11 remains low in the province, with just 56 per cent of kids in that age range having received one dose.

Clint Johnson, the B.C. Teachers’ Federation’s new president-elect, said educators across the system will be looking to balance the needs of all students returning to class.

Read more: COVID-19: B.C. reports 2 deaths, cases in hospital see 2nd bump this week

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“There’s some pretty different opinions, but one thing that’s common is there’s going to need to be a transition back, and there’s going to be some very different comfort levels. Our hope is as we’re doing that people respect the choice to wear a mask or not,” he told Global’s Focus BC.

 

“Some people feel they need it. Some people feel they may not. We hope everyone is thinking with kind of a trauma-informed lens when they make that choice about not just themselves, but everyone else they’re spending time with.”

Click to play video: 'Vancouver businesses face backlash for requiring masks' Vancouver businesses face backlash for requiring masks
Vancouver businesses face backlash for requiring masks – Mar 17, 2022

While educators are trying to balance the comfort of youth on both sides of the mask debate, some advocates continue to push for masks to be reintroduced in schools.

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While hospitalizations have been dropping, limitations on testing mean the true number of cases in the community remains poorly understood and the spread of the new, more transmissible Omicron BA.2 variant is worrying, said Kyenta Martins, a parent with the Safe Schools Coalition.

Read more: Rapid COVID-19 tests now available to anyone in B.C. aged 18+

“We feel those protections are needed in an environment where there is minimal ventilation, filtration upgrades, they don’t have the option for social distancing, we’re still in the rainy season, so most instruction is still going to happen inside,” she said.

Martins said treating COVID like the flu at this point is a mistake, noting that as many as one in 10 people develop long COVID after contracting the virus, and that some children are susceptible to the post-COVID youth syndrome MIS-C.

Click to play video: 'Growing calls to reinstate some COVID-19 mask mandates' Growing calls to reinstate some COVID-19 mask mandates
Growing calls to reinstate some COVID-19 mask mandates – Mar 25, 2022

Kids don’t have a realistic choice to opt out of school, she said, so officials should be prioritizing precautions, not acting reactively once cases spike.

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“We’re still at a point where because we’re having higher number of cases of COVID, so the number of complications is higher as well,” she said.

“Once we get to a lower number of cases, lower complications, we’re not going to need these precautions as much, especially not mandated.”

Read more: B.C. businesses hail end of mask mandate, but face long road to recovery

On Friday, B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix said the province had no plans to change its position on mask mandates, at least in the short term.

Dix said masks remain recommended, but that the evidence reviewed by public health officials indicated that legally requiring them is no longer necessary.

“That doesn’t mean they’ll never come back,” Dix said, referencing the fall respiratory illness season as a potential risk.

“If there’s anything we’ve learned in this time it’s that we have to consistently adapt and learn … the COVID-19 pandemic, and the COVID-19 virus, will have more surprises for us. And we’re going to have to deal with those in the months to come.”

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