Now that the B.C. government’s back-to-school strategy has been unveiled, Nanaimo-Ladysmith teachers’ union president favours teachers deciding whether to get vaccinated and wishes COVID-19 masks were required for all grades.
The B.C. Ministry of Education detailed its 2021-22 return-to-school plan this morning, Aug. 24, which mandates masks for all adults, but only for Grade 4-12 students. It is not enough, said Jeremy Inscho, Nanaimo District Teachers’ Association president.
Inscho said the union is pleased that there is acknowledgement that “things aren’t back to normal,” but the delta variant is present and a “game changer.”
“I’d definitely like to see [masks] be K-12,” said Inscho. “We’ve got students in kindergarten, up to about Grade 6, who are not eligible to be vaccinated, so why the mask mandate doesn’t cover those students as well is a bit puzzling.”
In terms of requiring teachers to be vaccinated, Inscho said it should be left up to individuals. Mandated vaccines may or may not be coming down the road, but other preventions should be the focus in the meantime, he said, including masks and ventilation improvements. It’s a personal choice, he said.
“Having government mandate what happens to people’s bodies is a scary thought when there are other avenues possible…” said Inscho. “I certainly encourage anyone who can get a vaccination to do so, as soon as possible, if they haven’t already and largely people have. But there are people who are hesitant, for legitimate reasons, and there’s people who are not able to, for medical reasons … that needs to be respected.”
The ministry announced that class structures would return to pre-pandemic norms, unlike the ‘cohort’ learning group system used last school year. Inscho said cohorts didn’t exactly control the spread of the virus, though they did assist with contact tracing.
Masks will not be required in high-intensity activity, like gym class. Inscho said physical fitness is important and whether masks should be worn is a tough question.
“We don’t necessarily have the facilities, or the weather, that allow [gym] to happen outdoors entirely, so that’s a challenge,” he said. “I do recognize it’s very difficult to do high-intensity fitness with a mask on … I hope people choose to do that. I hope people make choices that are considerate of others and make choices that are going to reduce the risk for everyone.”
At the ministry press conference Aug. 24, Dr. Bonnie Henry, provincial health officer, addressed the issue of masks for K-3, stating the most important thing adults can do to protect children who aren’t eligible to be vaccinated is to make sure they themselves are immunized.
“We know that there are challenges for young people in wearing masks and our approach will continue to be to support a positive mask-encouraging environment with the younger students,” said Henry.
When asked about mandatory teacher vaccinations at the conference, B.C. Minister of Education Jennifer Whiteside said there has been “significant uptake” of vaccines among school staff and said the province will continue to stress the importance of immunization.
“We are going to continue to work with … public health and school districts to ensure that vaccines are available and that we reinforce the strong message we have across all of our partner groups in education about the importance of vaccination. That is going to be the focus of what we do over the coming weeks,” she said.
Scott Saywell, Nanaimo Ladysmith Public Schools’ superintendent and CEO, pointed out that this will be the third school year in which the district has had to deal with COVID-19. He said the district will always follow direction from the health ministry and public health officials when it comes to masks and other health and safety guidelines.
“The information, the science, is showing very low infection rates in that age group still and the best thing we can all do is get vaccinated to protect the people right now who can’t be vaccinated … I strongly recommend students in K-3 to wear masks,” said Saywell. “The challenge, you can appreciate, exists still that touching your face and doing all of those things and playing with a mask is a real challenge for some students. That’s why I believe the PHO left it up for parents to determine who’s going to wear one or not.”