VANCOUVER — The Vancouver School District's extension of a mask mandate that will include kindergarten to Grade 3 students starting Monday has prompted calls for more districts in British Columbia to follow suit in the absence of a provincewide public health order.
The Vancouver district informed parents about the change in a letter Wednesday after a unanimous vote by board members concerned about rising COVID-19 cases among children.
Vancouver School District chair Carmen Cho said in the letter that requiring all students to wear masks will provide an extra layer of protection to limit the spread of the virus.
The Surrey Board of Education issued a news release Wednesday saying it would also be mandating masks for all students in the district, from kindergarten to Grade 12, starting Monday. The board said it is partnering with Fraser Health to consider hosting vaccine clinics to increase vaccination rates.
Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has resisted calls by parents and teachers to make the face coverings mandatory for all students, saying ventilation and limitations on intermingling between classes in different grades are also important factors in schools.
Henry said Tuesday that more children between the ages of five and 11 are being diagnosed with COVID-19 in the eastern Fraser Health region because they are not eligible for vaccines and due to the lower vaccination rates in at least four communities there.
Kyenta Martins, who speaks for parent-led group Safe Schools Coalition BC, said a rise in cases should prompt a provincewide mask mandate for all children if the goal is to keep students learning in schools.
"We're asking for better remote learning for those who are not able to enter the classroom," she said. "We're asking for rapid testing. And we are continuing to ask for transparency and data because the data that they're putting on the website is not accurate."
The province recorded 813 cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, along with 11 more deaths, for a total of 1,953 fatalities. Outbreaks have been declared at a hospital in Northern Health and at another in Interior Health, and there are 22 outbreaks in non-acute facilities, mostly long-term care homes.
Henry has dismissed rapid testing as unreliable, including for residents of long-term care facilities earlier in the pandemic, and said Tuesday that regional health authorities would be posting potential exposures of COVID-19 at schools on their websites so parents have an authoritative source of information.
"It takes time for public health to be notified of a positive lab test and to do that important case investigation to understand what settings people were in, where they could have picked it up and where they could potentially transmit it to others," she said.
The B.C. Teachers Federation pushed for a mask mandate for months before Henry implemented it last March, and the union's president, Teri Mooring, said Wednesday there's no acceptable rationale for not extending it now to younger grades.
"We'd like other school boards to follow suit with what the Vancouver School Board did," she said. "The trustees have ultimate responsibility to make sure that schools are healthy and safe spaces."
CUPE BC, which represents about 30,000 workers in the public education system, said in a statement that it applauds the Vancouver board's decision to extend the mask mandate to all students and that it encourages trustees around the province to vote in favour of a similar extension.
"Clearly, the Delta variant has changed the situation in schools," said Karen Ranalletta, president of the provincial chapter of the union.
Mask mandates in schools vary by province. In Alberta, for example, masks became mandatory in indoor public spaces earlier this month but schools were exempt, with school boards left to set their own policies.
In Ontario, masks are required indoors for Grades 1 to 12. Quebec has focused its requirements on high-risk areas like Montreal, where face coverings must be worn in common areas, while students in Grade 5 and up must also wear them in classrooms.
Amy Johnston, who teaches music to kindergarten to Grade 6 students at a school in Surrey, B.C., said it's time to extend the mask mandate to younger children across the province.
"Dr. Henry seems to be OK with Vancouver doing it on its own, so there's no reason why other school districts shouldn't all be holding emergency meetings to do the same thing," she said.
Johnston said she disagrees with the provincial health officer that there is limited intermingling between grades because students' movements are less restricted without the cohorts that were in place during the last school year.
She said her daughter, who is in kindergarten, happily wears a mask to school, so there shouldn't be any concerns about children not wanting or being able to use the face coverings to protect themselves.
Parents in some school districts have not been provided information on the state of ventilation at schools since the province promised upgrades.
The Education Ministry said all school districts are now reporting information about improvements to ventilation through their health and safety committees and have been asked to make it available to the public.
However, Mooring said that while the Vancouver School District has improved ventilation with high-grade filters, that's not the case with all the other 59 districts around the province, and some information is not forthcoming.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 29, 2021.
Camille Bains, The Canadian Press