B.C. teachers still calling for mandatory masks, improved ventilation when classes start in September

Back to school shopping season has begun and teachers across the province are hoping face masks are on the list.

As cases of COVID-19 continue to rise in British Columbia, the union representing all public school teachers is calling on the provincial government to make masks mandatory in classrooms for the upcoming school year.

“We’re really concerned about the high case counts right now in B.C. and how they’ve increased across the province and so we’re definitely looking to start the school year with the mask mandate,” said Teri Mooring, the president of the B.C. Teachers’ Federation (BCTF).

She said the BCTF is not taking a position on mandatory vaccines for staff but that there has been little push back from educators and the prime concern is infecting students who are still too young to be immunized.

Currently, only residents over the age of 12 can be vaccinated against the novel coronavirus.

Teachers and school staff from the Surrey School District are pictured lining up to receive their COVID-19 vaccination at an immunization clinic in the Fraser Health region in Surrey, B.C. on Tuesday, March 24, 2021. (Ben Nelm)

Scared for students

Jennifer Heighton is an elementary school teacher in Burnaby. She has received two vaccine doses herself but is concerned about her Grade 4 and 5 students.

“I worry about keeping them safe,” she said. 

Heighton said last year she had 23 students and this year it’s closer to 30, meaning she will need to add another row of desks and students will have to sit in pairs.

She would also like to see better ventilation in classrooms.

In a statement to CBC, the Ministry of Education said HVAC systems at more than 400 schools have been upgraded in the last four years, and that in 2020 alone, districts used $10 million in federal pandemic-specific funding to upgrade more than 45,000 air or ventilation filters in B.C. schools.

“We are continuing to work closely with public health experts and our provincial K-12 steering committee to finalize plans to ensure the safety of students and staff, and we will have further details later this month,” reads the statement.

“As we have since the beginning of the pandemic, we will base our safety plans on the most current information on the virus and the rollout of the provincial vaccination campaign.” 

Mooring said the provincial process to improve ventilation has been “very slow.”

“We still don’t have a specific commitment around where those HEPA filters are going to go and in which schools,” she said, adding the province does not have any centralized information about school ventilation systems and therefore has to connect with each district individually which is adding to that lag time.

Provincial update expected soon

Delta high school teacher David Yuill caught COVID-19 last year and not only worries about his students but also about bringing the virus into his home again.

“I want to be there for my students but I also want to be there for my family,” he said.

Even with better ventilation, he said the teens he teaches are social by nature and don’t necessarily practise physical distancing. Mandatory masks feels like a no-brainer to him.

He said students are already used to wearing them and did so last year without issue.

 “I don’t see any reason why we wouldn’t just formally mandate that,” said Yuill.

On Saturday, dozens of parents, educators and students rallied at the Vancouver Art Gallery,also demanding better protection from COVID-19 when children return to school.

According to the B.C. government’s website on COVID-19 safety in schools, updated health and safety guidelines will be posted in August and will address masks, gatherings, extracurricular activities and sports.

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