COVID-19 in B.C.: Updated school health measures include mandatory masks, P.E. and music guidelines, and more

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      A long-awaited announcement has been made for health measures in schools.

      At a news conference today (February 4), B.C. Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, and B.C. School Trustees Association president Stephanie Higginson spoke about adjustments to health guidelines to protect staff and students in the provincial school system, and also provided details about funding allocation for this term.

      Updated guidelines for child care will be available in the coming week.

      Mask wearing

      All middle and secondary students and K-12 staff must wear masks in all indoor spaces where interactions aren’t controlled or high-traffic areas, such as hallways, libraries, lunchrooms, buses, or when not with their learning group.

      Today, Whiteside announced that masks must be worn by all students and staff—with the exception of elementary students—in all indoor areas when not seated, even when within learning groups. Exceptions include when sitting or standing at their seat or working station, when there is a barrier in place, or when eating or drinking.

      Some examples that students will now have to wear masks include when entering or moving around the classrooms, or during group work or discussions.

      For Grade 6 and 7 students, Whiteside said that those students in an elementary school won’t be required to wear a mask but those in middle schools will be required to wear them—she said that this is for consistency within the entire school.

      For elementary students, mask wearing remains optional.

      Higginson pointed out that the wording of the mask mandate has been changed from “not recommended” to “not required”, which had created confusion or misinterpretation.

      Henry explained that young children don’t transmit the virus as much and aren’t as adversely affected by it, and that it can be challenging for young children to wear a mask all the time.

      She added that masks “can be counterproductive”, particularly for young people who have challenges wearing it, have a hard time refraining from touching or fiddling with it, and that for some, wearing one is impossible. 

      In addition, she said that schools are a “low-risk setting” for transmission, “regardless of the exact amount of space they have around them”.

      Henry has long been reluctant to make masks mandatory, including in public spaces outside schools, as she said that masks aren’t the most effective form of protection on their own. She also said that no one should be shamed or blamed for wearing or not wearing a mask.

      Whiteside also reiterated what Henry has said several times in the past.

      “It is critical to remember that masks do not prevent the spread of COVID-19 on their own,” she said, pointing out that all layers of protection are still needed, such as washing hands, not attending school when sick or having symptoms, and more.

      Higginson added that what isn’t often heard is that approximately 90 percent of students are back in schools and that there are a number of families that are comfortable with sending their children to schools.

      B.C. School Trustees Association president Stephanie Higginson (left), with Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside
      Province of British Columbia

      Physical education and music

      For physical education classes, Whiteside said that any high-intensity activities should be conducted outside whenever possible.

      Also, any shared equipment—including treadmills, weight machines, or musical instruments—can only be used if properly cleaned after being used and before the next person uses it.

      For music classes, all students using equipment or playing musical instruments must remain two metres apart.

      Also, all individuals must wear masks while singing.


      Whiteside said that they are applying the second instalment of $121.2 million in federal funding, which arrived on January 29, for this term. The first half of the total  $242.4 million in funding was allocated in September. 

      Since September, over $5.7 million of the K-12 Education Restart Plan for school districts has been used to purchase 3.9 million masks for students and staff.

      This term, the Education Ministry is allocating:

      • $101.1 million to school districts;
      • $7.5 million to independent schools;
      • an additional $3.5 million to school districts manage COVID-19 exposures in schools
      • $8.2 million for Indigenous students to address learning loss and student health, technology for remote learning, education and mental health support, adapting classroom spaces, and enhanced cleaning;
      • $900,000 for six regional rapid response teams, with one for each health authority and one for independent schools, to expedite school health investigations.
      B.C. provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry (centre), with B.C. School Trustees Association president Stephanie Higginson and Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside
      Province of British Columbia

      Transmission, variants, and vaccines

      Although there have been numerous potential exposure events in schools (individuals present at school who have COVID-19), Henry said that there has been very little actual transmission occurring “within the school setting, particularly within the classrooms, and that is a testament to how safe these are being made by everybody in the school community”. 

      She cited the recent example of an individual at Maple Ridge’s Garibaldi Secondary School with a COVID-19 variant—although everyone present at the school was tested, no other cases were detected, which Henry said is proof that the layers of protection are working.

      Henry said that what they have been learning about this virus is that it does not appear to severely affect young people, particularly children under the age of 10, as much as older individuals.

      Accordingly, she said vaccine development has focussed on adults, particularly older adults, who are more vulnerable.

      However, she said some vaccines, including the Moderna vaccine, are currently undergoing trials involving people are young as 12 years old.

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