The mask mandate for schools in B.C. is being expanded to include staff and students in kindergarten to Grade 3 as of Monday, the province has announced.
Officials said Friday the change is being made after reviewing case data gathered during the first month of the school year and listening to concerns raised by parents, teachers and students.
"I know many parents will welcome these additional measures to keep our kids safe," Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside said during a news conference.
Until Friday, the rule had only included staff and students in Grade 4 and up.
3 districts tightened mask rules
School trustees in the cities of Vancouver, Surrey and Burnaby all moved beyond provincial regulations earlier this week by tightening mask mandates in their districts to require face coverings for all students, regardless of grade level, in order to slow the spread of COVID-19.
B.C.'s provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry had previously resisted calls from parents and teachers to make face coverings mandatory in kindergarten to Grade 3.
COVID-19 cases in the 4th wave in B.C. now shifting more to young people
She previously said masks are just one tool used to contain COVID-19, while good ventilation and limits on intermingling between classes are other key ways to curb the spread.
The B.C. Teachers Federation (BCTF) said Friday it was "grateful" to see the mandate expanded but said the decision not to include younger students from the start left school trustees in a difficult position.
"When things aren't mandated provincially, it's really hit and miss as to how it plays out in the field," said Teri Mooring, president of the federation.
She said it was "extremely disappointing" that school boards in Vancouver, Surrey and Burnaby had to make their own decisions.
"Those school boards that stepped up really did have an impact on this announcement today," she said.
Cases rising in elementary school-aged children
Data presented Tuesday showed a steady rise in COVID-19 diagnoses in school-aged children, especially in children aged 5 to 11, who aren't yet old enough to be eligible for vaccination.
Henry said the majority of transmission continues to happen in homes and social settings, but those infections lead to cases in schools. Communities with the lowest vaccination rates are particularly hard hit, she said.
"We know that immunization protects communities and protects children," said Henry. "The best protection for kids in our schools … is for everyone who is eligible to be vaccinated."
As for vaccines for younger children, Pfizer has submitted research to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on the effectiveness of its COVID-19 vaccine in kids. Moderna also is studying its shots in elementary school-aged children.
Henry said Friday she's hopeful a vaccine will be available for children under 12 before "the end of this calendar year and, hopefully, as early as the end of October."
Public health will release a new monthly report to show how the virus is infecting school-aged children, starting with the first edition in mid-October.
The BCTF said it was pleased to hear more data is being released.
"We have heard from both families and teachers about concerns they don't have enough information about what's happening at their child's school in order to make informed decisions," said Mooring.
Members of a fourth Metro Vancouver school board in New Westminster are meeting later Friday to consider a recommendation to seek a legal opinion regarding mandatory vaccinations for school staff members.
Vaccines are not currently mandatory for staff working in B.C. schools.