COVID-19 mask mandate goes into effect for K-12 students in B.C. schools
B.C.’s expanded mask mandate in schools is in effect Monday, amid a spike in new COVID-19 infections among school aged children.
The change came after pressure from parents, teachers, and school districts prompted the province to expand the mask order to all grades.
The provincial health officer made the announcement on Friday, extending the mandate to include kindergarten to Grade 3 students.
“I'm not the only person who makes these decisions so it is something that we have a large group of people who are working with public health. It's in partnership with the school districts that parent advisory committees and others,” said Dr. Bonnie Henry.
Henry said the change was not due to a lack of confidence in her policy, but rather due to new data.
The education minister says expanding the mandate a few weeks after back to school gave teachers the opportunity to talk to their students about it first.
“We wanted to start the school year in a sort of stable way as possible with the situation being as familiar as possible,” Jennifer Whiteside told CTV Morning Live.
Under the new rules, all kindergarten to Grade 12 students, staff and visitors are required to wear masks in all indoor areas, including at desks and on school buses.
Whiteside says the mandate will be implemented through positive reinforcement.
“The objective of this is not to be punitive and not to create more problems. The objective of this is to try and expand the safety measures, add in more layers of safety, and to work proactively and positively in schools and with children and families, so that everybody in the school environment feels safe,” explained Whiteside.
Masks may be removed temporarily for eating or drinking, identification, to play a wind instrument, or to engage in physical activity.
Those who cannot tolerate wearing a mask for health or behavioural reasons, or are unable to put on or remove a mask without assistance are exempt.
Masks are also not required while providing a service to a person with a disability or diverse ability where visual cues, facial expressions and/or lip reading/movements are important.
Dr. Henry said the policy will be in place until at least the end of Christmas break, but could be extended if case counts remain high.
When asked about making vaccines mandatory for school staff, Whiteside said the province doesn’t have any immediate plans.
“I don't think that public health will take anything off the table in terms of the tools that they have available to manage the pandemic. We're going to see in a couple of weeks, a really good assessment of what's been happening in the first part of the school year,” she explained.
The minister also did not commit to a widespread rapid testing program in schools, despite it being done in other provinces.
“In some of the health authorities, Vancouver Coastal and Fraser in particular, they've made available the gargle test so that if a child is symptomatic at school, schools can send that child home with the test. That just helps speed up the process for the parents in terms of getting that getting the diagnosis done,” Whiteside told CTV Morning Live.
There is currently no approved vaccine for kids under the age of 12.
Pfizer plans to file a formal submission to Health Canada later this month for use of its vaccine for kids aged five to 11.