B.C. has widened its school mask policy to make non-medical masks mandatory for middle and secondary schools in all indoor areas.
The policy was announced on Thursday as part of new safety measures the province says will help limit COVID-19 transmission.
Middle and secondary school students will only be permitted to remove masks when they are sitting or standing at their seat or workstation in a classroom, when there is a barrier in place, or when they are eating or drinking.
All K-12 staff will also have to wear non-medical masks at all times in indoor areas, including when they are with their learning groups.
Elementary students can continue wearing masks indoors at their discretion.
In addition to the new mask policy, new guidelines require that high-intensity physical activities be held outside as much as possible.
Shared equipment such as weight machines, treadmills, or musical instruments can only be used if they are cleaned between each use.
Masks must also be worn while singing and students in bands or using equipment should be spaced at least two metres apart.
“Since the start of the school year, we have paid close attention to our schools and learned much, including the importance of having robust safety plans and using the layers of protection,” said Dr. Bonnie Henry, B.C.’s provincial health officer.
“Masks are one important layer, and these updated guidelines will strengthen how and where they should be used to protect everyone.”
The BC Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) applauded some of the moves on Thursday, but said they would still like to see more efforts towards school density, ventilation, and what they say is inadequate contact tracing.
They also criticized the government for not extending the mask mandate to elementary students, though they were encouraged that the government removed the words “not recommended” with regards to masks for this group.
“Overall, BC teachers will be relieved to see the government and health officials finally move on key safety measures like a stronger mask mandate and the potential to improve access to much-needed layers of protection like barriers,” said BCTF president Teri Mooring.
“More can be done to protect teachers, other education workers, students, and the families we all go home to. The employer and health officials have the power to take those steps.”
The province said it will also be adding $900,000 for six regional rapid response teams to help improve investigations in the event of school exposures.
These teams will also conduct physical or virtual site inspections to ensure COVID-19 guidelines are being followed.
In response to criticism that the policy still allows students to remove masks at their desks, Dr. Henry said it represents a low risk and offers youths a break from mask-wearing.
“We are not seeing transmission when students and teachers are in the classroom sitting at their desks,” said Dr. Henry.
“We know as well that it’s a challenge for young people to wear a mask all the time. It gives people an opportunity when they are in a low-risk setting. It is aligned with what we are doing in every other sector.”
More information on the latest K-12 school COVID-19 safety guidelines can be found online at www.gov.bc.ca/