As thousands of children across British Columbia return to school in a few days, some parents and teachers say they want to make sure minimizing COVID-19 risk is still a priority.
Although the Omicron BA.5 wave peaked in early August according to the the B.C. COVID-19 modelling group, many British Columbians are set to get their fourth dose of the COVID-19 vaccine this fall, to buffer against the possibility of another wave of infection.
When students returned to in-person classes earlier in the pandemic, schools had mask mandates and safety plans in place. This year, parents are raising concerns about a lack of concrete protective measures.
"I'd like to see masks," said Kyenta Martins, vice-chair of the Vancouver District Parent Advisory Council. She says she is not calling for a mask mandate, but rather educating people across the province on why they should be worn.
She says the council would also like to see the Ministry of Health and epidemiologists set clear guidelines on masking, ventilation and filtration to best protect students and teachers.
Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside said the ministry takes its guidance from public health, as it has throughout the course of the pandemic.
"I do want to say that it is still very important for everyone to particularly do the health check and not go to school if they're sick, whether they're staff or students," Whiteside said.
In a statement on Aug. 25, the Ministry of Health, along with the Ministry of Education and Child Care strongly encouraged families to have their children's vaccinations up to date.
They said those with children age five to 11 years old are eligible for boosters, while children six months to four years of age can get vaccinated.
About half of British Columbian children between ages five and 11 have had two vaccine doses, according Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry, who added that this is not high enough.
Whiteside said she's working with school districts to make vaccines more accessible for all families and hopes parents will consider having their children vaccinated.
The press release said wearing masks is "a personal choice, and a choice that will be supported and respected," adding masks will be available in schools for anyone who wants one but are not mandatory.
Henry defended the policy, saying there are now higher levels of immunity and the virus has mutated to become more transmissible, but cause less-serious illness.
"What's really important is staying up-to-date on vaccinations for all of the vaccine-preventable diseases that we give to kids," she said.
"As we move into October, November, December, I do expect that we're going to see both a surge of COVID this year and I'm concerned that we're going to see other respiratory illnesses that we haven't seen for a while, particularly influenza."
However, Jennifer Heighton, a Burnaby elementary school teacher and co-founder of Safe Schools Coalition B.C., says masks should be a universal requirement for those learning and working in schools.
"We are dealing with more transmissible variants and it can reinfect over and over," she said.
Annie Ohana, a secondary school teacher in Surrey, agrees.
"I don't like the fact that schools are treated like an island, as if transmission doesn't happen or transmission [in] kids is less likely. This is all not true."
Meanwhile, the B.C. government says it invested over $166.5 million on upgrading and improving schoolroom ventilation since the beginning of the pandemic. The federal government also contributed $11.9 million "to ensure clean air" in classrooms.
The B.C. Teachers Federation president Clint Johnston told The Early Edition host Stephen Quinn a lot of students and teachers masked up this past year and he hopes it continues. The federation is requesting N95 masks, he added.
He also says ventilation in schools has improved, but it is not enough.
"There's a lot of systems across the province that aren't necessarily capable of receiving that MERV-13 rating [hospital level air quality]. There were workarounds that were attempted, but that's why we believe that work needs to continue, that systems need to be upgraded."
MERV stands for minimum efficiency reporting values and its ratings run from one to 16. Higher ratings indicate greater effectiveness in trapping airborne particles between 0.3 and 10 microns in size.
The Ministry of Health clarified in an email that about four per cent of classrooms, including portables, have no mechanical ventilation and that the province is providing funding to school districts to install standalone HEPA filtration units earlier this year.
"Based on a survey in the last school year of 60 school districts, we know that more than 1,750 standalone HEPA filtration units have been purchased for deployment across K-12 schools using the 2022-23 funding," the ministry said.
The Vancouver School Board replied in an email that federal funding has been invested in new ventilation and heating equipment for portable sites, as well as refurbishing "dozens of air supply units in classrooms, gyms and auditoriums".
"All our air filters are changed three times per year and have been converted to MERV-13 where applicable. These activities will continue into the fall of 2023."