VICTORIA — British Columbia's education minister said safety protocols must evolve alongside the COVID-19 pandemic as she announced an expansion of mask requirements in schools.
Jennifer Whiteside said Thursday that students in middle and secondary school and staff for kindergarten through Grade 12 will be required to wear non-medical masks in all indoor areas of the school, including while in their learning groups.
The exceptions will be when they are sitting or standing at their desk or work station in a classroom, when there is a barrier in place or when they are eating or drinking, she said.
Previously, students and staff were only required to wear masks in areas where interactions are not controlled, such as in hallways, libraries and on school buses.
"It is critical to remember that masks do not prevent the spread of COVID-19 on their own," Whiteside said.
For elementary school students, wearing masks indoors remains a personal choice, she said.
The new mask mandate does not go as far as some provinces with higher COVID-19 infection rates. In Quebec, high schoolers must wear masks at all times inside school buildings and in Ontario, the rule also applies to elementary students.
The B.C. Teachers Federation, which had lobbied for an expanded mask mandate, celebrated the news, but said more could still be done.
"Today's changes will make schools safer and that is welcome news. However, the changes do not include improvements to school density, ventilation or the ongoing inadequacy of contact tracing," union president Teri Mooring said in a statement.
Last year, the federal government allocated $242.4 million to help support B.C. schools amid COVID-19. The first half of the funding came in September and Whiteside announced Thursday that the second half arrived Jan. 29.
The ministry is allocating $101.1 million of the new instalment to school districts and $7.5 million to independent schools, plus an added $3.5 million to help school districts manage COVID-19 exposures in schools.
Whiteside said school districts and independent schools have already used some of that funding to hire more staff, purchase masks and cleaning supplies, support remote learning and improve ventilation and air quality systems.
With respect to density, she said school districts have staggered start and break times to reduce crowding.
In addition to the mask mandate, Whiteside also outlined stricter guidelines for physical education and music classes.
High-intensity physical activity must be held outside where possible and shared exercise equipment and musical instruments must be cleaned between uses.
Students using equipment or playing instruments should be spaced at least two metres apart and masks are to be worn when singing.
Stephanie Higginson, president of the B.C. School Trustees Association, said over 90 per cent of all public-school students have returned to class, indicating the confidence families have in sending their children to schools.
Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said the new guidelines bring schools in line with other spaces like office buildings.
Keeping schools open remains a high priority as even small disruptions to in-class learning can have long-term impacts on a student's education and mental, physical and emotional health, she said.
"These can have lasting effects throughout a lifetime," she said, adding schools are considered "low-risk" environments.
Testing at a school in Maple Ridge, B.C., where a person contracted a COVID-19 variant that originated in the United Kingdom, shows that the safety protocols are working, Henry said.
There is no longer an exposure risk at Garibaldi Secondary School after 81 students and eight educators all tested negative, officials have said.
"Schools are a reflection of our communities, so I anticipate as we continue to have spread in our communities we will continue to experience exposures. That's why it is so important for us to update and reinforce the importance of these plans and guidelines," Henry said.
— By Amy Smart in Vancouver.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 4, 2021.
The Canadian Press