B.C. rolls out tougher mask rules for students in middle, high schools

Middle and secondary school students will have to wear masks in their classrooms, except at their desks, under new rules announced Thursday by B.C. Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside.

The mask rule for all indoor areas of schools will also apply to staff throughout the public-school system, said Whiteside.

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“The only exception to this is when they are sitting or standing at their seat or work station in a classroom, where there is a barrier in place, or when they are eating or drinking.”

She said masks for ­elementary students remain a “personal choice” for students and families.

Whiteside said guidelines are also being beefed up for physical education and music classes, including requirements for cleaning items such as weight machines, treadmills and musical instruments between uses. “Students using equipment or playing instruments should also be spaced at least two metres apart, and masks are to be worn while singing.”

She said masks on their own won’t prevent the spread of COVID-19, and students and staff need to continue to follow safety guidelines, including not coming to school sick — even with mild symptoms — and washing hands diligently.

Whiteside said about 90 per cent of students in the province are attending school in person rather than taking remote classes, and keeping them healthy is a top priority.

“Schools are at the heart of our neighbourhoods and communities, and they are the best places for students to learn and develop their abilities, their knowledge, their skills,” she said. “There simply is no substitute for in-class learning.”

Whiteside said while schools have experienced exposures — where someone with COVID was in the school during the infectious period — transmission rates inside schools remain low. “This tells us that our health and safety guidelines that we have in place in schools are working well.”

Under previous guidelines, middle and secondary school students, as well as all kindergarten to Grade 12 staff, were only required to wear non-medical masks when they were in areas of the school where interaction is not controlled, such as hallways, the library or lunch room, as well as on buses and any time they were not with their learning group.

Winona Waldron, president of the Greater Victoria Teachers’ Association, called the changes “a step in the right direction.”

She said she is happy to see a change in wording about masks in elementary schools, which are no longer referred to as “not recommended.”

“I think that’s important to give teachers the ability to have that conversation with families about using masks and creating a culture of mask-wearing,” she said. “My preference would be just to say that all kids wear masks whenever possible.”

Parent Angela Carmichael, who has a son at Central Middle School and one at George Jay Elementary in the Greater Victoria School District, said she is all for the new regulations.

“As a parent, I definitely support mandatory masks in schools,” she said. “If we want to really, really get back to normal somehow, we need to be doing everything.”

She said her middle-school child had been wearing a mask throughout the pandemic, so she doesn’t expect things to change for him.

“We need to be listening to the teachers because they’re in the classroom,” Carmichael said. “They’re the ones who are seeing the need for this.”

Sooke School District superintendent Scott Stinson said he also supports the guideline changes. Stinson said there has been just one case of COVID-19 exposure at a school in his district, home to 11,200 students — at Royal Bay Secondary, where a notice was issued Jan. 18.

“It’s always out there because it’s in the community, and so we continue to remind our students, staff and families that we want them to be vigilant and not to become complacent with those health-and-safety practices.”

The ministry is tapping into $121.2 million in federal funding — the second instalment of $242.4 million in funding announced in September — earmarked for COVID-19 response in B.C. schools.

The Ministry of Education is committing $101.1 million to the province’s 60 school districts and $7.5 million to independent schools, while $8.2 million is going to Indigenous learners.

jwbell@timescolonist.com

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