SURREY, B.C. — Teachers marched outside an elementary school Tuesday in Surrey, B.C., where a confirmed case of a COVID-19 variant has been reported to demand more safety measures.
Members of the Surrey Teachers Association dressed in red also marched with their colleagues outside Woodward Hill Elementary before classes began.
Matt Westphal, the president of the Surrey Teachers Association, said the biggest concern is that students in elementary schools are not required to wear masks inside their classrooms.
"And that's something that we think needs to change," he said in an interview.
Teachers are concerned that there is just a single set of health and safety rules for every school in the province, regardless of how severe the pandemic is in each community, he said.
"We think that school districts should be permitted to establish more strict rules, if they think they need to," Westphal added.
"Surrey and other districts in the Fraser Health region, in particular, are examples of places that are having far more cases than others."
Seven schools in the Fraser Health region reported cases involving a COVID-19 variant of concern, with all of them linked to the strain first detected in the United Kingdom.
The teachers union has held meetings with labour and health officials about their concerns, Westphal said, but they were told it is up to the B.C. Centre for Disease Control and the provincial health officer to change the rules.
Earlier this month, the province changed safety protocols to require students in middle and secondary school, along with staff working in kindergarten through Grade 12, to wear non-medical masks in all indoor areas of their schools, including while in their learning groups.
Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said Tuesday that it is up to each school to work with their local situation, adding that her office develops guidelines with input from teachers, parent groups and superintendents.
But she said there is "absolutely flexibility" in adapting and adjusting safety plans for schools depending on what's needed.
"They work with their local school health officer and address the situations that are unique to them and their school," Henry told a news conference.
"It is important for teachers to encourage mask use where it is appropriate in classrooms."
While there has been a cluster of exposures, there hasn't been much transmission so far, she said.
"It does not look like there's significant transmission from these variants, which is really good."
Prof. Sarah Otto of the University of British Columbia's zoology department said while data is still sparse on how variants affect children, initial research shows they are not at any greater risk, although it is uncertain how much they can transmit the virus.
Given that the new variants are more transmissible in general, she said it is possible that children may show more symptoms and cases could be easier to detect.
"We don't have as much information about how exactly these new variants transmit, so just increasing our protections seems like a good move at this point until we learn more," said Otto, an expert on the mathematical models of pandemic growth and control.
Elementary schoolchildren may not always be able to keep their masks on, so health officials along with schools can come up with flexible policies while encouraging the use of masks, she said.
"Being a little more cautious right now is essential."
— By Hina Alam in Vancouver.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 23, 2021.