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B.C. teachers' call for N95 masks for reopening rejected by officials

Schools to reopen Monday amid Omicron variant wave depending on cloth masks and limited rapid tests
Teri Mooring
BCTF president Teri Mooring.

The B.C. government will not be providing respirator masks to teachers ahead of the Jan. 10 reopening of schools, as requested by the BC Teachers' Federation (BCTF) last month.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said Friday that well-fitting three-layer masks are sufficient as part of “layers of protection” in schools, citing reduced mingling among children at schools. Henry also said N95 masks only offer “moderately increased filtration” and “I think we need to be pragmatic and practical” as she asserted outbreaks are generally not occurring in schools.

But BCTF president Teri Mooring is pointing to Ontario, where teachers are being assured N95 masks. Following Henry’s press conference Friday, Mooring said better masking can prevent illness among teachers and thus prevent possible closures due to staff shortages.

“We think N95s are a prudent step that would add to those layers,” said Mooring, noting Henry nor Health Minister Adrian Dix have provided a reason why they cannot supply such masks.

What is unclear is the state of N95 mask supply. The U.S. CDC still maintains on its website that such masks need to be reserved for health-care workers. Such masks offer excellent filtration while inhaling, notes the Mayo Clinic.

Among other requests Mooring is making is a speedier booster shot program for teachers, who are 96% vaccinated with two shots.

“We are hearing teachers saying they can’t book their appointments earlier than they wanted to,” said Mooring.

If enough teachers fall ill, “we will end up with functional closures,” said Mooring.

Furthermore, “hybrid learning,” or online and in-person learning, continues to be a challenge with ongoing staff shortages.

Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside said Friday contact tracing will not exist in schools. Rather, when a school notifies public health of a “signal of concern with respect to attendance,” a notification will go out to the school community. If a school closes, home-based learning will commence.

Since the government has limited capacity to test for COVID-19, Dix said 200,000 rapid tests will be issued for school staff across the province. More tests that can only be employed by health officers will be used in school outbreaks, said Henry.

“We’ve reached our limits here,” she said of PCR testing.

The government is telling low-risk and vaccinated people with mild symptoms to not seek testing. Testing is being rationed for health-care workers and vulnerable individuals.

Dix has asserted the province has capacity to test 20,000 people per day; however, it is only averaging about 14,500 per day over the past week. The rest of those tests are conducted by private enterprise.

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