VANCOUVER — The head of the British Columbia Teachers' Federation is citing a high number of COVID-19 workplace claims in her renewed call for the province to require all students to wear masks in classrooms.
Teri Mooring said Tuesday that WorkSafeBC's acceptance of three times the number of claims from elementary school teachers compared with those at secondary schools underscores the importance of wearing masks.
The latest WorkSafeBC data, up to March 12, shows 88 COVID-19 claims have been allowed from elementary teachers compared with 26 from secondary schools.
However, the Education Ministry said 60 per cent of teachers work in elementary schools but low transmission rates suggest current guidelines are working to prevent transmission of the virus.
"We have been actively working with WorkSafeBC and public health experts to help keep students and staff safe at school," the ministry said in a statement.
"While we know masks provide some protection for both the person wearing them and those around them, we also need to remember that they are only one of the layers of protection to help prevent the spread of COVID-19."
Rules on masks were expanded last month to require students in middle and secondary schools to wear them in all indoor areas including learning groups, unless they're sitting at their desks with barriers in place or eating.
Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has said the updated guidelines are in line with those in workplaces and the level of exposure in schools is a reflection of what's happening in any given community.
Rani Senghera, director of the Surrey District Parents Advisory Council, said community transmission is highest in the Fraser Health region, which includes Surrey, home to the largest school district in the province, so mask guidelines should be targeted for such areas.
"We've called on the province to look at each school district and consider hot spots," Senghera said, adding most parents are in favour of a mask mandate.
A minority of parents in the district believe children can't transmit COVID-19 and have refused to abide by recommendations from principals and the council for students to wear masks, she said.
"That's where a mask mandate comes in," Sanghera said, adding there are no middle schools in Surrey so students in Grades 5, 6, and 7 are still in elementary school and are not required to wear masks.
Ratinder Matthew, a spokeswoman for the Surrey School District, said new measures will be considered after spring break in partnership with Fraser Health in areas with a high number of COVID-19 exposures.
"It could be options for adjusting elementary start times and then that would also correspond with dismissal time. Some of our schools are doing staggered start times with different cohorts within their schools," she said.
Three early dismissal times could be introduced, but any changes would be made in consultation with parents and unions representing teachers and support staff, Matthew said.
Tanya Broesch, an associate professor of developmental psychology at Simon Fraser University, said an across-the-board mask mandate for all students is possible because even the youngest children in elementary schools are adaptable.
"I can't think of any reason why they wouldn't be able to follow the rules and wear masks. And I can't think of any way that could impede their learning," she said.
Broesch said her son is in Grade 5 at a middle school, and wearing a mask has just become the norm.
The teachers union has also called for priority immunization for its members as essential workers, but Health Minister Adrian Dix suggested Tuesday that won't be happening as the province moves forward with its age-based plan.
"We know how important everyone who works in education is, teaching assistants and teachers and administrators and the people who keep our schools clean and safe," he said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 16, 2021.
Camille Bains, The Canadian Press