Patti Bacchus: Different schools need different COVID-19 rules

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      Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside did some cringey verbal gymnastics on Monday (February 22) in response to reporters’ questions about whether school boards in high COVID-19 infection regions could bring in stronger safety protocols, including making masks mandatory in elementary schools.

      Three reporters—including Global’s Richard Zussman, CBC’s Zahra Premji, and CTV’s Shannon Paterson—asked similar questions about whether school districts like Surrey, which is reporting multiple exposures to “variants of concern” in schools, could bring in their own, stronger safety rules.  None of them got a straight answer from the rookie minister.

      On Tuesday, however, Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said there’s “absolute flexibility” when it comes to schools’ COVID-19 safety plans. 

      It’s mind-boggling to think we’re a year into this deadly pandemic and still can’t figure out if a school board can make masks mandatory for all grades, at all times (except when eating and drinking) where there have been multiple reported cases of COVID-19—including the more infectious variants—and the minister of education won’t answer such a simple question.

      Minister of Education Jennifer Whiteside

      It turns out a school board on Vancouver Island brought in school mask requirements that exceed the provincial guidelines way back in August, and their students have been complying all year.

      The Qualicum School Board, which governs School District 69, voted unanimously in August 2020 that “students from grades five and up be required to wear masks when they are outside their learning groups and likely to be within two metres of others". (Under the provincial guidelines, masks are optional in elementary schools.) They also passed a motion requiring all “children and staff wear masks when accessing, riding, or leaving school buses”.

      A Victoria school trustee, Diane McNally, moved a motion a few weeks ago for her board to bring in stronger rules, but her colleagues defeated the motion. Trustees from other districts have told me they’ve been advised by the B.C. School Trustees Association that they may risk losing government insurance coverage through the Schools Protection Plan if they meddle with the provincial safety rules, although that seems unlikely if they continued to meet provincial requirements but also exceeded them.

      B.C. was a leader, and now it’s just an outlier

      At the beginning of the pandemic, B.C. was seen as a leader in managing COVID-19, although that may been due to its luck of having a later spring break than other regions, which may have had more cases due to returning travellers. B.C. was able to put out a call to tell people not to travel last March break, which helped us get off to a good start.

      Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry

      Other provinces have stronger in-school mask mandates, but B.C.’s public health officials insist that B.C.’s school protocols are working, and that masks will continue to be optional for elementary students—and high school kids don’t need to have them on while they’re seated in class, even in hot zones like Surrey, where several cases of the infectious U.K. variants have been detected and infection rates have been consistently high, relative to other regions.

      That means there’s a chance students with the more infectious variant could be seated for hours a day in class beside other students and staff, with no masks to reduce the chance of transmission. I don’t know about you, but that’s not a chance I’d be willing to take.

      While Henry is adamant that in-school transmission is rare and there’s no need for stronger school safety measures, recent WorkSafeBC data shows that it accepted 110 of the 164 COVID-19 claims filed by teachers and education assistants, noting that “claims are allowed when the evidence is sufficient to establish the worker has COVID-19 and the risk in the workplace was significantly higher than the ordinary exposure risk.”

      The provincial mask policy may be adequate for most schools and school districts where community infection rates are low, but I don’t buy that the Surrey situation doesn’t call for stronger measures, including mandatory masks in elementary schools. This not a time for a one-size-fits-all approach to school rules.

      Give school districts the green light to beef up safety protocols

      I get the government is reluctant to reduce class sizes or build bigger schools to reduce classroom density, as that would be costly. Yet explicitly allowing districts to require masks in elementary schools, and at all times except when eating or drinking in high schools, doesn’t cost anything. It could get thorny if a student refused and enforcement could be tricky, but we’re in a public health crisis and I’m sure if some capable grownups fired up the zoom machine they could figure out a way to manage it.


      I don’t see anything stopping school boards from adopting their own stronger protocols, as long as they meet or exceed provincial requirements. For some reason, none are doing so, aside from Qualicum. If I were still a trustee, I’d be bringing a motion to the table calling for stronger in-school mask rules, as I subscribe to the “better-to-beg-for-forgiveness-than-ask-for-permission” approach when it comes to keeping staff and students as safe as possible.

      As a citizen, public education advocate, and taxpayer, I’m fed up with government and school boards ignoring the B.C. Teachers’ Federation and parents’ reasonable and fair requests for better protections for those who work or learn in schools with frequent COVID-19 exposures. Why not give them the protections their counterparts in other provinces are getting and that workers in almost all other sectors enjoy?

      Minister Whiteside’s responses at her Monday media availability were unacceptable, even for a rookie. She needs to come back with clarity and a green light for districts to take stronger measures where warranted. If her ministry and government won’t give education workers and students stronger protections, the very least she can do is give school boards the clear go-ahead to take matters into their own hands, as the Qualicum board did months ago.

      School trustees, meanwhile, need to step up and stand up and do everything they can to keep their employees and students safe.

      Patti Bacchus is the Georgia Straight K-12 education columnist. She was chair of the Vancouver school board from 2008 to 2014.