Students in Grade 4 and up will be wearing masks as B.C. goes back to school

Masks are back in but learning cohorts are out as B.C. students prepare to go back to school this fall.

Students in Grades 4 to 12, along with teachers and visitors, will be required to wear masks, said Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside, while students in kindergarten to Grade 3 will be encouraged to wear masks.

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“So this means that students can look forward to a resumption of safe in-person full time learning, extracurricular activities, sports, arts, performing arts and music,” Whiteside said.

“We know they’re also looking forward to seeing their friends, teachers, librarians coaches and all of the other school staff.”

Cohorts or learning groups will no longer be used in K-12 classrooms. Although physical distancing of two metres is no longer recommended for the K-12 setting, schools are encouraged to continue to create space between students and to remind students and staff about respecting others’ personal space. Use of water fountains will no longer be restricted.

Extracurricular activities are allowed in line with any local, regional, provincial or national health orders in the community, Whiteside said.

Whiteside said $87.5 million has been used to improve school ventilation in B.C. schools, including $77.5 million specifically for HVAC system upgrades or replacements in 2020-21 and 2021-22.

Vaccines remain the most effective way to keep transmission down, said provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry. Masks are considered an extra layer of protection.

All British Columbians 12 years and older are eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. As of this past week, 72 per cent of 12 to 17 year olds in British Columbia have had their first dose and 57 per cent are fully vaccinated, Henry said.

The risk of COVID-19 in schools is low, she said.

Medical health officers in the health authorities will continue to be able to introduce local measures. In the event of COVID-19 outbreaks or a rising number of infections, there may be orders aimed at individual schools, groups of schools, or an entire district.

There are approximately 1,900 K-12 schools in B.C. In the 2020-21 school year, 40 schools closed temporarily due to COVID-19.

A mask order will also be in place at post-secondary institutions. It will apply in all indoor public areas on campus including lobbies, hallways, stairwells, elevators, classrooms and labs.

Proof of vaccine will be required to access some non-essential services on campuses. Students living in on-campus housing will need to have proof of vaccination by Sept. 7, though Henry said the requirement will be phased in to ensure students have access to vaccines.

“Public health is working with post secondary institutions to ensure that all students, staff, and faculty have timely access to immunization, and we will be working as well, with all of the schools to ensure that vaccines are available in the schools, when, when needed.”

The province is not requiring teachers in grade schools or post-secondary faculty to be vaccinated.

ceharnett@timescolonist.com

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