Despite a provincial mandate for masks in all public indoor and retail spaces, schools are still exempt.
In her COVID-19 briefing Thursday (Nov. 19). provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said schools are “not public open spaces.” However, masks are mandatory in high-traffic areas within middle and high schools.
“We don’t expect children to wear masks sitting at their desks all day long,” she said. Older students in Ontario and some Quebec schools are required to wear masks while in their classrooms.
In a social media post, the B.C. Teachers’ Federation stated its displeasure with the lack of a full mask mandate for schools.
“The Provincial Health Office has chosen not to mandate masks in #bced (sic) schools even as they make them mandatory in other public spaces. We continue to say to teachers, wear masks. Work with your colleagues to create a culture of mask wearing. Model it in your classes,” the union said.
This comes as students and teachers at Cambridge Elementary officially started online learning Wednesday, after the school was officially closed until Nov. 30 due to a COVID-19 outbreak.
During Wednesday’s (Nov. 18) board meeting, Surrey school district Superintendent Jordan Tinney said the closure, which was announced Saturday evening, was part of “very substantial measures.”
“There have been other closures, but those other closures, they termed functional closures which means that they actually don’t have enough staff to make sure the school can stay open,” he said.
“Whereas with this one, it’s a declaration that there has been transmission in the school beyond a cohort.”
The school is closed until Nov. 30, and Tinney said there were additional measures announced Sunday for mass testing of all students and staff in the building and self-isolation for two weeks “for anyone who had been in the building.”
With that, he added it is a “very different situation” with having to move to provide education when both staff and students are in self-isolation.
The Surrey Teachers’ Association president Matt Westphal said there is a “fair bit of work” moving to remote learning at such short notice.
As it’s the first closure in the district, and it happened over the weekend, Westphal said that for both the district staff and the teachers, it’s a matter of figuring out how to handle that.
He said he’s heard of one school that has told its staff to bring home teaching materials each day, including laptops.
“I’ve heard of at least one school where they were given that advice, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to have to shut down, but if they’re seeing a number of cases … I think everyone’s realizing we have to start turning our minds (to) If we have to shift to working remotely, what can we put in place now that will help smooth that process?”
Westphal said there is “mounting concern” with the recent spike in COVID-19 cases, especially in Surrey.
“People are wondering, ‘OK, this probably won’t be the last school that happens to and which one will be next?’” he said. “Some schools have had a lot of exposures. They’ve had classes self-isolating, others told to self-monitor.”
On Thursday evening (Nov. 19), the district announced 19 exposures at different schools. That’s the most announced in one day.
Throughout the district, several schools have hit double-digits for reported exposures since Sept. 8. The schools with the most exposures are: Tamanawis Secondary (12), Panorama Ridge Secondary (11), Sullivan Heights Secondary (11), Frank Hurt (10), Enver Creek Secondary (7), Queen Elizabeth Secondary (7) and Cambridge Elementary (6).
Meantime, the Cambridge community has rallied together to support the school’s music teacher Darlene Lourenco.
According to a GoFundMe, both Darlene and her husband Tony have been diagnosed with COVID-19, with Darlene fighting the virus in hospital. On Nov. 13, the GoFundMe organizer Amy Bateman said Darlene had been taken to the ICU “as her oxygen saturation is quickly declining.”
By Nov. 16, Bateman said Darlene remained “stable,” but she “continues to require oxygen support.” Tony, she said, is asymptomatic and under isolation.
As of Friday afternoon (Nov. 20), 783 people had donated $38,001 to the GoFundMe. The original goal was $5,000.
Westphal said he is “really concerned” for Darlene, and “also for all the other people, including in other schools, who have gotten COVID. She’s certainly not the only teacher that’s tested positive for COVID.
“I would say having somebody in an intensive care unit really demonstrates the potential danger that people face.”
He said many people do recover, but some have a “much harder road.”
“We certainly have quite a few people who are medically vulnerable who may have requested an accommodation to be able to work remotely from home which was denied. They’re going into school every day and they’re feeling afraid because if they get it, they’re at a far greater risk of complications.”
– With files from Katya Slepian