BC Reverses Course on Masks, Reveals Back-to-School Plans

·3 min read

Masks will once again be required in indoor public spaces like transit, malls and retail stores, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry announced today, in a bid to quell surging transmission of COVID-19.

The order, which takes effect Wednesday, also applies to classrooms and indoor public spaces at post-secondaries.

And Henry announced students in Grade 4 and up and all staff and teachers will be required to wear masks. Students in kindergarten to Grade 3 will be encouraged to wear masks.

“While we have made incredible progress… in the broader community we are seeing increased transmission and increasing levels of transmission, particularly among unvaccinated people,” Henry said.

The renewed mask mandate comes less than eight weeks after it was first lifted and on the heels of a vaccine card program officials said was needed to bolster vaccination rates and slow the spread of COVID-19.

Since the mask mandate was ended, the seven-day rolling average of new cases has increased by more than 10 times and hospitalizations have increased by 30 per cent as the Delta variant began to run rampant, mostly among the 776,000 eligible but still unvaccinated people.

The mandate marks a departure from the province’s previous focus on vaccinations, as immunization rates have stalled and cases continue to climb.

But the province also announced today it would not mandate vaccines for everyone on post-secondary campuses, as many faculty and students’ unions and the University of British Columbia have called for.

Post-secondaries are also not permitted to require students to be vaccinated for classroom instruction, Henry and Advanced Education Minister Anne Kang said. Institutions may require faculty and staff to be vaccinated.

“We know that the in-classroom setting is not the risky setting,” said Henry, adding she didn’t want to create more barriers for students when masking will already be in place.

“We don’t believe there is a need for a vaccine mandate for students to receive in-class learning at post-secondary institutions.”

However, the new card program requiring vaccination for activities like concerts, sports events and restaurant visits will apply to activities on campus, as well as all students living in residence, Kang said.

When asked why vaccine cards would apply to restaurants on campus but not crowded classrooms, Henry did not directly respond.

“The risk really is in communal living settings where we have seen transmission,” said Henry.

Teachers and school staff will also not be required to be vaccinated, Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside said. She said the province saw high vaccine uptake when teachers in Surrey were prioritized for vaccination in the spring, but did not provide figures.

Last year, B.C.’s limited data showed transmission was rare in schools, Whiteside added.

Other than masking and regular sanitation and screening, schools will mostly look normal when classes resume Sept. 7.

“We are not in the same situation this year as we are heading into last September,” she said.

Last week, modelling by a group of experts cautioned against using last school year as a model for how things will go this year because the Delta variant is much more transmissible.

“Exposures in schools will likely be higher with higher community transmission,” said the report from the BC COVID-19 Modelling Group. “Transmission within schools could increase sharply without control measures in place, and because of Delta.”

Unvaccinated people are 10 times more likely to spread or become infected by the virus.

Children under 12 are unlikely to be eligible for vaccination before October.

Children under 10, nine per cent of the population, currently make up about 36 per cent of the unvaccinated population. The vaccination rate for teens is the lowest of any age group. About 70 per cent of people 12 to 17 have had at least one shot.

Almost 90 per cent of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in B.C. are among the 16.8 per cent of people who are unvaccinated.

Moira Wyton, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Tyee

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