It is now mandatory for students in middle and secondary schools across B.C. to wear non-medical masks in all indoor areas of the school, as the province expands its health and safety protocols.
Non-medical grade masks must be worn in all indoor areas, the province announced Thursday, including while students are in their learning cohorts.
The B.C. Ministry of Education said masks can come off while students are at their workstation in the classroom, while a barrier — like a sheet of Plexiglas — is in place or while they're eating and drinking.
Staff at elementary schools are included in the new mandatory mask rule, but elementary students are not. For them, masks remain optional.
Previously, students and staff were only required to wear masks in areas where interactions could not be controlled, like in libraries, hallways and on school buses.
Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said students are allowed to remove their masks once they're sitting in class because months of case data has shown classrooms are a "low-risk setting."
"We are not seeing transmission when students and teachers are in the classroom sitting at their desks," Henry said.
$900K for rapid response teams
The province also announced the creation of six regional rapid response teams — one in each health authority — to support independent schools across the province.
The teams, created with $900,000 in funding, will conduct physical and virtual inspections to ensure health and safety guidelines are being followed consistently.
If there is a serious exposure or in-school transmission, teams will conduct a review and make recommendations to prevent the situation from happening again.
Henry said the teams will help public health find out what those schools need to manage an outbreak, as communication has proven difficult in the past.
"Particularly October, November, December, when we were having a lot of cases in communities ... It was a very challenging time for public health," she said.
Calls for more safety measures
The new mask mandate brings schools more into line with provincial health and safety guidelines. Masks have been mandatory inside every public indoor space in B.C. since November.
Parents and teachers have repeatedly called for more rules to help keep schools safer, including a mask mandate, since in-person classes resumed in September. A survey commissioned by the B.C. Teachers' Federation (BCTF) earlier this week suggested more than half of teachers felt unsafe in the classroom during the pandemic.
The BCTF said it was "relieved" to hear the new rules, but not totally satisfied. Left out of the new rules were requirements to improve ventilation, improve contact tracing, add widespread barriers and reduce class sizes to help with physical distancing.
Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside said the safety issues missing from new guidelines should be addressed with federal funding.
"There is absolutely anxiety among students and staff and their families in schools and across our communities. It certainly is our hope that the work we have done together collectively ... that this does go some way toward making folks feel more secure and confident," she said.
The new protocols did include stricter rules for physical education and music classes. High-intensity activities are to be held outside as often as possible and shared equipment can only be used if it is cleaned between use and kept two metres apart.
Masks must also be used while singing.
More than 90 per cent of all public school students are back in class, according to the B.C. School Trustees Association.
Henry has said throughout the fall that there was little transmission happening in schools. According to the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, 2,868 children under the age of 10 in the province had tested positive for the virus as of Tuesday — about four per cent of all cases in the province.
There was a close call this week after someone at Garibaldi Secondary School in Maple Ridge, B.C., was infected with a more transmissible form of the virus.
That person recovered. A total of 81 students and eight staff members who are in that person's cohort were all tested to see if the virus had spread, and all of them tested negative.
Henry said the fact the variant didn't spread at the school shows safety plans can work.
"I anticipate, as we continue to have spread in our communities, we will continue to experience exposures and that's why it's so important for us to update and reinforce the importance of these plans and these guidelines."