Surrey Teachers’ Association president Matt Westphal says the implementation of B.C.’s latest mask rules in schools are “better now than later,” but the school year “should have started with a stricter approach and then lightened it up if need be.”
Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and Minister of Education Jennifer Whiteside announced Thursday (Feb. 4) that masks would be mandatory in middle and secondary schools, except for three scenarios: when students are at their own desk or workstation, when they are eating or drinking and when there is a plexiglass barrier between them.
That means that masks will be required even when students are only interacting with their learning groups, which can include up to 120 students for high schools. The rules originally introduced in September only required students in middle and high schools to wear masks in high traffic areas such as hallways, and only outside of learning groups.
Westphal said Thursday’s announcement was a step in the right direction, but he added it doesn’t go as far as the STA thinks it needs to go “to make schools as safe as they should be.”
The STA, along with the BC Teachers’ Federation, have been calling for stronger mask mandates throughout the 2020/2021 school year.
“There isn’t a whole lot of change from what the current rules are,” Westphal told the Now-Leader following the announcement. “For one thing, they say middle school and high school, even though most school districts don’t have middle school. We think an age-based division would make sense for (grades) 6 and 7.”
In the Surrey school district, there are only elementary and secondary schools.
“For the elementary students,” Westphal explained, “we were glad to see that they took out the wording in their documents saying ‘Masks are not recommended’ because school districts interpreted that as being ‘they should not’ rather than now they’re saying they’re not required, but if people want to they can.”
Masks will now also be mandatory for middle and high school students who are singing in music classes, while those playing instruments must be at least two metres apart. For physical education classes, high-intensity activities must be held outside “as much as possible.” Any shared equipment, such as treadmills, weights and musical instruments, can only be used if they are cleaned between use.
Westphal said he believes what happened at Earl Marriott Secondary, when “close to 50” COVID-19 cases were were linked to five classes, including PE classes, “could have happened at any number of schools.”
“What happened at Earl Marriott indicated there’s some issues with the PE protocols,” he said.
“I think part of the issue with PE is that the messaging you’ve heard all along is the learning groups are a safe, a low-risk environment, so I think a lot of the PE teachers took that to heart that then they may have engaged in things that now are not being recommended.”
Asked if a stronger mask mandate, implemented earlier, could have helped ease transmission, Westphal said it’s not something he can prove, “but I think it stands to reason that stricter guidelines might have prevented some of the transmissions and exposures that we’ve had.”
He noted that when it comes to transmission, he’s been told the health authority considers it school transmission “only if they can rule out any other possible place where it could have been transmitted.
“I think it may be understating how much school transmission there is, given the very strict criteria they use for classifying it for a school-based transmission.”
– With files from Katya Slepian