The B.C. Ministry of Education expanded mask rules for public school students on Feb. 4. (Stock photo)

The B.C. Ministry of Education expanded mask rules for public school students on Feb. 4. (Stock photo)

Nanaimo-Ladysmith teachers’ union hopes for stricter mask rules in schools

Local teachers’ union says B.C. rules fall short of other provinces

B.C.’s Ministry of Education has expanded mask rules for students, but Nanaimo-Ladysmith teachers’ union hopes for stricter regulations.

Jennifer Whiteside, B.C. education minister, announced this morning that masks are now mandatory in indoor areas for middle school and secondary students, however, affected students will be exempt when they are at their seat, if a barrier is in place and while drinking or eating. Previously masks were only mandatory in high-traffic areas in schools.

Elementary school students, as was the case previously, are still not required to wear masks.

Jeremy Inscho, Nanaimo District Teachers’ Association spokesperson, told the News Bulletin he is pleased B.C. education sector standards are becoming “incrementally” more in line with others, but it falls short of other provinces.

“Ontario has a mask mandate for Grade 1-12, and at all times. Alberta is 4-12,” said Inscho. Why are we doing 8-12 and sometimes 6-7? That’s just not clear. There’s a risk, there’s a concern and our province isn’t protecting students and staff to the level that others are.”

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The district has reported COVID-19 exposures at several schools in the last week and Inscho said union members are worried as they are under “deep pressure to maintain a healthy, safe environment to the best of their ability to perform their jobs.” While Dr. Bonnie Henry, B.C.’s health officer, said there haven’t been COVID-19 variant cases in schools, Inscho is hopeful for testing.

“When we’re looking at clusters, when we know it’s more than just an isolated case, we need to jump on this,” said Inscho. “We have these more transmissible variants going around right now and we need to do more than the minimum. If we jump in now to increase our prevention, we can get ahead of the curve, rather than reacting. The [announcement] today was based on looking at what has worked so far and obviously it hasn’t worked because we’re [expanding] it, but why not take a bigger step? Why not do more when we’re expecting the risks to be greater with more transmissible variants?”

Inscho said the union is satisfied with cleaning protocols put in place due to the pandemic, but they should be the norm. He said previous governments under-funded education, often at the expense of education support workers, such as cleaning staff.

“Until this year, we haven’t had daytime custodians in elementary schools for years,” said Inscho. “Now we do and schools are clean and it’s noticeable. The custodians are able to do more than just sweep the floors and empty the garbage. There’s actually some sanitation happening here and cleaning surfaces and that’s at a standard that needs to stay. That’s not a COVID thing, that should be an all-time thing in prevention of future outbreaks of even the annual cold and flu.”

Charlene McKay, Nanaimo-Ladysmith school board chairperson, said she is satisfied with today’s announcement.

“I appreciate that the provincial health office has finessed the guidelines to make them perhaps a little more effective,” said McKay. “I do think that mask wearing is one of the lowest levels of protection that’s available to us and so it’s good that we’ve added in another layer of protection in certain circumstances and appreciate that they’ve reviewed the guidelines overall.”

When asked at the press conference, Whiteside detailed how the latest rules differ from the previous ones.

“[Students] will be required to wear a mask when they’re entering their classroom or learning space, if they are engaged in any group work or discussions, if they’re getting up from their desk to get a drink of water or to move around the classroom,” said Whiteside. “And those provisions are consistent with what we see in office/workplace settings, for example.”

Ally Segreto, a Ladysmith Secondary School Grade 12 student and student council vice-president, said there has been buy-in and she doesn’t see student habits changing.

“It’s pretty much the same thing that myself and a lot of other of my classmates have been doing already … it’s not really that different,” said Segreto. “If you’re sitting you’re allowed to keep [your mask] off, but if you’re standing and walking around or doing group work you have to put it back on.”

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