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Column: Should masks be mandatory, even for elementary school students?

Eighty-three per cent of people says masks should be mandatory in schools, according to a survey.
Bonnie Henry January 22
Provincial health officer Bonnie Henry

With COVID-19 variants hitting schools in Surrey hard and a reported big jump in COVID-19 infection claims by educators, teachers are calling for ramped up health and safety measures in schools.

After news of several variant cases in schools in Surrey and Delta, B.C. Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) president Teri Mooring called for districts to be authorized to implement changes like requiring masks in elementary schools or switching to online learning if community spread is high.

This week, BCTF reported a 250-per-cent jump in COVID-19 infection WorkSafeBC claims in the education sector since early December and again asked for safety rules to be strengthened. Eighty-two per cent of their claims were accepted by WorkSafeBC, BCTF said.

“The provincial health officer continues to tell us that rates of COVID-19 transmission in schools is low, but the data is telling a different story,” Mooring said. “We need the province to step it up and strengthen health and safety measures in our schools, including expanding the current mask mandates.”

If I was a teacher in Surrey, I would most certainly agree. Teachers at one Surrey school staged a “walk-in” last week to demand better safety standards.

Richmond schools have not been hit as hard as those in Surrey, however the BC School Covid Tracker, a Facebook group, says there have been 73 COVID-19 exposures in Richmond schools and 3,438 exposures province-wide since September. (Note that some schools have several exposures.) So far, no variants of concern have been reported in Richmond schools, but it’s likely just a matter of time.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has consistently said that despite the many exposures, there has not been a lot of transmission of COVID-19 in schools, which shows the safety plans are working. But not everyone agrees.

The variants are “of concern” because they are more contagious and possibly more deadly than regular COVID-19. When a variant case is discovered in a school, testing is ramped up. Several classes in Surrey are self-isolating and a number of other people have since tested positive.

So far, no one is known to have died from a variant case in B.C., but recently Henry announced the deaths of three people in their 30s, which is concerning because generally younger people do not get seriously ill with COVID-19.

Earlier this month, B.C. beefed up the mask mandate in schools, now requiring students in middle and secondary schools to wear masks in their classrooms, except when seated at their desks. But students in elementary schools are still not required to wear masks, although many do. In my view, wearing a mask should be a requirement for those who are able to, especially in light of the variants. Of course, anyone who is unable to wear a mask should be exempt.

Dr. Bonnie Henry has said it could be difficult for children in elementary school to wear masks. This is a bit contradictory, because in districts that have middle schools, students in Grades 6 and 7 are required to wear masks, but in districts that do not have middle schools, like Richmond, students in Grades 6 and 7 are not required to wear masks.

Many British Columbians support mandatory masks, including in schools, a November survey by Insights West found. Eighty-three per cent of people surveyed said masks should be mandatory in both elementary and secondary schools.

The World Health Organization says the role of children in the transmission of COVID-19 is not fully understood, although children usually do not get serious illness themselves. The WHO doesn’t recommend masks for children under the age of five, but says masks can be considered for children between the ages of six and 11 if the level of transmission in the community is high.

Henry’s deputy, Dr. Reka Gustafson said at a news conference last week that "at this moment" there's no reason to make a change to mask rules in schools, but that public health will change the rules if the evidence suggests they should.

In-class instruction is critical for children, B.C.’s education minister Jennifer Whiteside said at the same news conference.

“It's a fundamental necessity to get us through the pandemic,” Whiteside said.  

British Columbians are fortunate that in-person schooling remains possible. Making masks mandatory in schools for all students seems like a logical next step to keep schools open, even if the variants cause a third wave.

Tracy Sherlock is a freelance journalist who writes about education and social issues. Read her blog or email her

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