Masks are now mandatory in B.C. schools—through at least April 19.
Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry introduced the measure March 29 “to support mask wearing for all students down to Grade 4.”
Many Richmond teachers have been calling for a stronger mask mandate since the fall. Richmond Teachers’ Association president Liz Baverstock said it would have helped if the province had previously said masks were “strongly encouraged.”
“I think if you had (that wording) from the province, that would (have helped) every single school,” said Baverstock. “We did that for a long time in public spaces, so why not consider that for schools?”
A Richmond teacher who spoke anonymously to the Richmond Sentinel said, “It seems really awkward that there’s an indoor mandatory mask (policy) for every space except schools, it’s like a mixed message that’s going out.”
Another teacher said, “There are a few classes I would honestly not go into as a person who’s just nervous. We’re all nervous and all adults are wearing masks. We’re afraid.”
The teacher added that additional cleaning materials and daytime custodians have helped with the overall cleanliness of schools, and that administrators have been “phenomenally supportive” of mask-wearing.
And outside the classroom, several teachers said it’s more challenging to enforce rules. As soon as students are dismissed, protocols aren’t necessarily followed.
Non-classroom teachers including gym teachers and librarians are sometimes part of school cohorts, but others come into contact with most of the students in the school on a regular basis. Educational assistants also face challenges given that they may be moved around between cohorts on an as-needed basis.
Baverstock also acknowledged the challenges of teaching while wearing a mask, and said the province should look into other solutions including protective barriers to help save teachers’ voices.
“As a system, we could be investing in voice amplification, pandemic or not,” said Baverstock. “It’s always surprising how many people have some low-level challenges hearing, especially in busy rooms. Teachers do use their voices a lot, and a voice amplifier would help teachers on a day-to-day basis, let alone when you’re wearing a mask.”
Although the Richmond School District has initiated its own campaign encouraging masks in schools, which teachers said they welcome, the province’s recent update is a step forward.
“Finally we have an updated mask policy,” said Baverstock last month. “I want to thank everyone for their advocacy, and especially staff in schools who have been reinforcing safety measures and the wearing of masks throughout the pandemic. I know that this board has been advocating throughout the pandemic on this particular issue.”
Baverstock said local support for mask-wearing was already in the high 90 per cent range in secondary schools prior to the new mandate. And a recent poll conducted by the district found that about 87 per cent of Grade 4 to 7 students were wearing masks, according to Superintendent Scott Robinson. He said this “speaks highly to the commitment that our community has had in relation to mask-wearing.”
“(A mask mandate) wouldn’t necessarily make me safer,” said one teacher. “(But) it will make people mentally feel safer—kids and adults. It will make people feel more at ease to come into work. COVID could come into the school at any time.”
Hannah Scott, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Richmond Sentinel