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Masks should be mandatory for K-3 students: Burnaby Teachers association

As teachers, children, and parents prepare for their 3rd school year dominated by COVID conversations, they’ll be packing their masks alongside their books.

At least, students Grade 4 and up will be, along with teachers and staff.

In a back-to-school plan unveiled on Tuesday, provincial health officer Dr Bonnie Henry and Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside announced that masks will be mandatory inside schools for Grades 4-12 but only recommended for K-3 students.

Burnaby Teachers Association president Daniel Tétrault told Burnaby Beacon that while it’s encouraging that the mask mandate has been brought back for older students, the union wants to see it put in place for the K-3 students as well.

“The part that doesn’t make sense to many teachers and families is that this age group are the ones that are not eligible for vaccinations. That doesn’t seem to make sense given the highly transmissible Delta variant,” Tétrault said.

“We’re heading into a year with a lot of unknowns where the Delta variant accounts for the majority of cases. And we don’t know what that’s going to look like, next year. And that’s why we think it’s important, it’s better to err on the side of caution.”

The unknowns of Delta

In the United States, where many regions are seeing unprecedented numbers of COVID cases surpassing even previous waves, hospitals are also seeing record numbers of children admitted.

Experts are blaming the spike on the Delta variant—but it’s important to note that blame mostly lies in the fact that children under 12 are the largest group of unvaccinated people both in the US and in Canada, and that the variant is highly transmissible. There’s no direct evidence thus far that Delta is itself more dangerous for children than other variants.

As The Atlantic reports, “The alarming rise of pediatric cases seems to reflect the grimness of infectious arithmetic: More kids are falling ill because more children are being infected; more children are being infected because this virus has seeped so thoroughly into the communities most vulnerable to it [in the United States].”

Vaccinated teachers, unvaccinated students

But Tétrault said K-3 teachers, in particular, are feeling really concerned about what the next year holds for them, standing at the front of a classroom full of unvaccinated students. He said they feel as if they’ve been “forgotten,” even as public health officials simultaneously recommend they create a “culture of mask-wearing” in their classrooms.

“Ultimately, a mandate would provide more certainty and safety across the board. We also know that young students are capable of wearing masks and, by this point in the pandemic, have gotten used to it,” he said.

“So again, we hope that parents and families make the responsible decision to send their young children to school in masks.”

Tétrault would also like to see vaccination clinics happening in schools, in order to bump up rates in the 12-17 age group. Health Minister Adrian Dix said on Tuesday that at the moment, only 57% of eligible children across BC are fully vaccinated.

Meanwhile, the province has not put in place a vaccine mandate for teachers and staff. Tétrault said he’s unaware of any discussions around that topic, or whether his provincial counterparts at the BC Teachers Federation have been involved in them. However, he said the BCTF and BTA are not opposed to vaccine mandates as long as there are appropriate exemptions in place for those unable to be vaccinated for medical reasons, and measures to protect teachers’ privacy.

Ventilation upgrades

In addition to the mask mandate inside schools, the province changed health and safety guidelines to allow regional measures in areas where there are clusters, outbreaks, or high levels of community transmission.

Whiteside touted an $87.5 million investment in improving ventilation systems in districts around the province at the Tuesday announcement as well, saying that 44 out of BC’s 60 school districts have upgraded their HVAC systems.

Tétrault said he found that comment misleading, however.

“It made it seem like districts had already made all the ventilation improvements required. We know that districts like Burnaby are doing a full inventory of classrooms and ventilation improvements needed. But from what I’ve been seeing, Burnaby has over 200 classrooms that are not connected to air ventilation systems,” he said.

“So last year, for example, they relied on opening doors and windows. And to improve these over 200 classrooms, Burnaby would need capital funding for this from the provincial government.”

The province also released guidelines for post-secondary institutions on Tuesday, and reinstated a mask mandate for all indoor public spaces in BC.