COVID-19 in B.C.: Masks mandatory again in public spaces; K-12 and post-secondary school health guidelines announced

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      One of the major points of public concern and debate about COVID-19 safety in B.C. during the pandemic has been focussed on schools, particularly in elementary and secondary schools.

      In the 2020-21 school year, 40 B.C. schools were temporarily closed for specific time periods due to COVID-19.

      However, studies conducted by the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority and Fraser Health Authority found that in-class learning at schools “were not significant sources of COVID-19 transmission”. 

      In Vancouver Coastal Health, 92 percent of school-associated COVID-19 cases were acquired from outside of school. 

      Fraser Health stated in a news release today (August 24) that an examination of 2,935 of 3,287 school-associated cases of COVID-19 reported between January and June revealed that 90 percent of the cases originated outside of schools, in households or the community. 

      Today, the B.C. government revealed details about the return to K-12 schooling and post-secondary education, for the 2021-22 school year at a news conference with Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside, Advanced Education and Skills Training Minister Anne Kang, and B.C. provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry.

      Henry pointed out that, due to immunizations, we’re in a “different situation” at this point in the pandemic, as students head back to school and as respiratory virus season approaches.

      In addition to the school guidelines, Henry also announced that masks are mandatory again for all British Columbians in all indoor public settings.  

      Mandatory masks 

      Although masks have been recommended during the current stage of the B.C. Restart Plan, Henry announced today that masks will temporarily become mandatory once again for all individuals aged 12 and above in indoor public spaces, and regardless of vaccination status.

      "As transmission of COVID-19 increases in B.C., primarily among unvaccinated people and in part due to the Delta variant, it's important to take this extra temporary step to make indoor public spaces safer for everyone,” Henry explained. 

      In the B.C. Restart Plan, Step 4 was set to begin September 7 at the earliest, with mask-wearing becoming a personal choice. However, B.C. Premier John Horgan said at yesterday’s news conference that advancing to Step 4 as scheduled is unlikely due to rising COVID-19 cases.  

      The list of spaces includes:

      • malls, shopping centres, coffee shops, retail and grocery stores, liquor and drug stores;
      • airports, city halls, libraries, community, and recreation centres;
      • restaurants, pubs and bars (unless seated);
      • public transportation, taxis, or ride-sharing vehicles;
      • office building areas where services to the public are provided;
      • common areas of sport and fitness centres (when not engaged in physical activity);
      • common areas of post-secondary institutions and non-profit organizations, and inside K-12 schools.

      Henry said this order will be reassessed once the B.C. Vaccine Card, which was announced yesterday, is fully implemented.

      In the B.C. Vaccine Card program, proof of full immunization for access to non-essential events and businesses will be required as of October 24. 

      Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside
      Province of British Columbia

      Elementary and secondary schools

      The updated pandemic health guidelines for schools were developed by the B.C. Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC), the Office of the Provincial Health Officer, and the K-12 education steering committee (which includes rightsholders and education partners).

      Like the last school year, masks will be required to be worn by all K-12 staff, students from grades 4 to 12, and visitors in all indoors areas of schools, including classrooms and school buses.

      Meanwhile, Kindergarten to Grade 3 students will be encouraged to wear masks. (Public health guidance for child-care settings remain in effect.)

      Other continued health measures include daily cleaning and disinfection protocols, emphasis on hand hygiene, and increased and improved ventilation.

      Something different in this new pandemic school year, as previously announced in June, will be the discontinuation of learning groups or cohorts in schools. 

      “We are not in the same position now coming into this school year as we were last year,” Whiteside said, citing a high uptake of vaccinations.

      When it comes to indoor school environments, Whiteside said that $87.5 million in provincial and federal funding has been invested in improving air quality.  

      She added that the B.C. government invested $77.5 million in air-quality projects in school districts for HVAC system upgrades or replacements, including full boiler and air-handling system replacements, larger ductwork, updating occupancy sensors and direct digital control units for building automation controlling air-flow rates, and portable HEPA filtration units in classrooms.

      In addition, Whiteside said that 44 of the province’s 60 school districts have upgraded HVAC systems. 

      Again, daily health checks will be conducted and both students and staff must remain at home when sick. 

      Rapid response teams will continue to work with health authorities and school districts to provide support and review health safety plans.

      Something new that will be added is that health authorities can introduce supplementary regional measures for specific schools or school districts if there are high community transmission rates or outbreaks. 

      Eligible students, teachers, and staff will be encouraged to be immunized. However, they are not being made mandatory. Henry had previously said that B.C. won't be denying people access to essential services based on vaccination status, including education. 

      The Education Ministry announced in June that there will be $43.6 million in COVID-19 relief funding for the 2021-22 school year. That total includes $25.6 million in new one-time funding to support health and safety measures, First Nations and Métis students, mental health services, and independent schools, as well as $18 million for school districts to address learning loss due to the pandemic.

      Advanced Education and Skills Training Minister Anne Kang, with provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry
      Province of British Columbia

      Post-secondary schools

      The two main points for post-secondary institutions are mandatory masks and vaccination proof for non-essential services.  

      Henry is issuing a new mask mandate for all indoor public areas at colleges, universities, and post-secondary institutions. This mandate applies to areas such as classrooms, labs, lobbies, hallways, stairwells, and elevators.

      That’s in addition to the B.C. Vaccine Card requirement for non-essential services that were announced yesterday, which applies to campus venues or settings such as gyms, nightclubs, restaurants and indoor events, including sporting events and concerts.

      In addition, vaccination proof will be required for students living in on-campus housing, effective as September 7. 

      Post-secondary sector experts, regional health authorities, the BCCDC, and the Office of the Provincial Health Officer released COVID-19 Return-to-Campus Guidelines in July, which will be updated periodically. 

      Post-secondary institutions can implement their own vaccination-proof requirement as a part of their COVID-19 prevention plans.

      Henry explained that the risk of transmission on campuses is primarily within communal living settings, which she said is why the focus is on immunization in those areas. 

      “We know that the in-classroom setting is not the risky setting and it’s incredibly important that we don’t put barriers in place for people receiving education, and that includes post-secondary education,” Henry said.

      Today's B.C. COVID-19 daily update will be forthcoming.

      You can follow Craig Takeuchi on Twitter at @cinecraig or on Facebook.