Variant in schools means it's time for all students in B.C. to wear masks: union

SURREY, B.C. — The head of the teachers' union in British Columbia is urging public health officials to expand guidelines on masks to include elementary students after seven schools reported cases involving a COVID-19 variant of concern.

Teri Mooring of the BC Teachers' Federation said school districts should be allowed to impose measures based on their needs, considering all the cases were found in schools in the Fraser Health region.

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"It's become really clear that some schools within districts are much harder hit than others," she said Monday.

Health officials say testing so far indicates the cases are linked to the variant first identified in the United Kingdom.

School districts should have the flexibility to require students to wear masks because a provincewide directive does not take into account regions that are experiencing a high number of cases and now variants as well, Mooring said.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry announced mandatory mask guidelines earlier this month for students in middle and high schools.

Mooring said she doesn't agree with the current directive, which says students are not required to wear masks at their desks. Henry has said that's the same as in offices or restaurants, but Mooring said students sit close together and the other environments don't compare well with schools.

Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside told a news conference on Monday that the health and safety of staff and students is "our highest priority."

Deputy provincial health officer Dr. Reka Gustafson said the policy on masks in schools is based on the ability of individuals to comply with it and there are no plans to make any changes.

"I would say that based on what we know about the new variants of COVID-19, I would not recommend a change in our masking recommendation. But as with everything else in this pandemic we have continued to learn, we continue to review the evidence."

Dr. Elizabeth Brodkin, chief medical health officer of the Fraser Health authority, said six of the schools linked to the variant are in Surrey and another is in Delta.

Testing of 300 students and staff will be completed on Tuesday but 35 staff have tested negative so far, Brodkin said. She declined to say how many cases have been detected at the schools, adding that some cases tested so far have been linked to the variant first identified in the U.K.

More in-depth testing will be done on the remaining cases to determine which variant is involved, Brodkin said.

"Most of the cases that we've identified over the weekend and in the previous week, in fact, don't appear to be linked to someone who has travelled, which means that these viruses are now in our community."

A joint statement from provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix said there are 28 new confirmed cases of variants of concern, for a total of 101.

It said 58 of those cases were found in the Fraser Health region.

Dr. Victoria Lee, CEO of Fraser Health, said starting immediately, COVID-19 testing recommendations have been expanded to include all high-risk contacts of individuals who test positive for the virus, regardless of whether they are experiencing symptoms.

— With files from Hina Alam

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 22, 2021.

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