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Bonnie Henry backs B.C.'s COVID-19 school plan, rejects mask mandate as 'blunt tool'

With K-12 classes set to resume, some parent and teacher groups are calling for more stringent COVID-19 measures, including better ventilation in classrooms and masking requirements.
Children walk with their parents to Sherwood Park Elementary in North Vancouver for their first day back to school on Sept. 10, 2020. Masks remain optional in newly released British Columbia guidelines for schools, but some teacher and parent groups are seeking more stringent COVID-19 protocols. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

B.C.’s provincial health officer is defending the province’s back-to-school pandemic guidelines against calls from some parent and teacher groups for more stringent COVID-19 protocols.

The guidelines released Thursday encourage pupils and others to get vaccinated and to stay home when they are sick, while masking remains optional and is described as being a “personal or family choice.”

Dr. Bonnie Henry, who called compulsory masking a “blunt tool,” said the province will monitor the spread of COVID-19 and other viruses, and be ready to employ temporary measures when and if they are needed.

“We need to tailor the measures that we have for what we’re dealing with now, and I think these are the appropriate measures for as we’re heading into the fall,” she said in an interview Friday.

“We are in a very different place than we were even a year ago with the high level of immunity and the exposure to the virus that we’ve had, and the virus itself has changed to where it’s much more transmissible but doesn’t cause severe illness.”

Clint Johnston, president of the B.C. Teachers’ Federation, said the union believes schools require stronger measures than businesses or public spaces and is calling for better ventilation in classrooms and masking requirements.

“We hope that people are watching and that the Ministry of Health remains really agile,” he said in an interview. “We hope that they are prepared and ready with contingencies and plans to address anything that does arise.”

In a joint statement Thursday, the Health Ministry and Ministry of Education encouraged parents to vaccinate their children against COVID-19 and other illnesses and to keep them home if sick, saying this was “particularly important in advance of respiratory illness season.”

“Wearing a mask will continue to be a personal choice, and that choice will be supported and respected. Schools will continue to have masks available for those who want to wear one,” the statement said.

Jennifer Heighton, co-founder of Safe Schools Coalition B.C., said the organization was “extremely frustrated” to hear the year would be starting “without better protections in classroom, such as universal masking with better masks provided and HEPA filtration.”

She said school is an essential service that should be accessible to all children in Canada, but some parents are being forced to “choose between school or health.”

“That’s an impossible choice to make,” she said.

Henry, who was part of the working group that crafted the guidelines, said she doesn’t see broad mask mandates returning.

“It’s a very blunt tool, and it’s kind of a tool of last resort,” said Henry, adding the province is now focused on encouraging parents to get young people vaccinated against COVID-19 and flu. “What’s really important is staying up-to-date on vaccinations.”

Henry said she expects to see a surge of COVID this fall, as well as other respiratory illnesses , including influenza.

Only about half of kids between five and 11 in B.C. have had two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine so far, she said, although about 90 per cent of children between the ages of 12 and 17 have had two shots.

Johnston said the union supports the province’s efforts to get kids vaccinated, but is worried it won’t be enough on its own.

“We fully support vaccination and we’d hope that everyone who can is getting a vaccine, [but] to prevent actual transmission, vaccinated or not, we’re still looking at masks and ventilation as two of the really key pieces of that,” he said.

The province said it has invested over $166.5 million upgrading and improving classroom ventilation since the beginning of the pandemic.

“This amount is expected to increase as school districts provide finalized costs for ventilation improvements funded through their annual facility grant allocations, with actual amounts becoming known at the end of the 22/23 school year,” the Health Ministry said in an emailed statement Friday.

The federal government government also announced in March that it would be providing an additional $11.9 million to B.C. for ventilation-related improvements, but the Ministry of Education has not yet revealed how it will be used.

Kyenta Martins, vice-chair of the Vancouver District Parent Advisory Council, said the group is expecting a spike in COVID-19 as schools open and colder weather approaches.

“We know it’s coming,” she said. “Good air means everything. Parents want in-person schooling where the air is safe.”

She said the group is also calling for more HEPA filtration and CO2 monitors in classrooms “so teachers are provided real-time data on air quality.”

As she prepares to send her two children off to class in the Sooke School District in September, Cendra Beaton says she’s putting her trust in officials to be reviewing the stats regularly and making sure that they’re on top of any safety procedures that are required. “Hopefully everything goes smoothly,” said Beaton, mother of a daughter going into Grade 9 and a son entering Grade 6.

Sooke School Board chairman Ravi Parmar said many parents are looking forward to a school year that is “much more normal,” although some families that contracted COVID over the summer may still feel hesitant.

Saanich School District superintendent Dave Eberwein said there haven’t been any significant changes to the COVID-19 protocols, and regular hand washing and the sanitizing of high-touch areas will continue to be emphasized.

— With files from Jeff Bell, Times Colonist