In a move to “help ensure a consistent province-wide approach,” the BC government has released what it calls operational guidelines around the use of masks for students and staff once school returns next month.
On Monday, the province said that under the updated health and safety guidelines, masks will be required for middle and secondary school students, as well as staff in “high-traffic areas,” such as buses and in “common areas” such as hallways, or anytime outside of their learning group whenever physical distancing cannot be maintained.
“Exceptions will be made for students who cannot wear masks for medical reasons,” the province said.
As well, elementary school students will not be required to wear masks, “but can wear one if they decide to do so.”
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“Even when wearing a mask, staff and students will still be required to maintain physical distance from people outside of their learning group,” the province said. “Efforts will be put in place to ensure there is not crowding, gathering or congregating of people from different learning groups in a school setting, even if non-medical masks are being worn.
Schools will also ensure “non-medical masks are available for staff if someone should become ill while at school.”
And to help staff and students meet these expectations, the Ministry of Education said it is providing additional funding to school districts that will support the purchase of up to 1.5 million masks, “enough for every public-school staff member and student to have at least two masks.”
The province said other health and safety guidelines will include the following:
- Increased cleaning of high-contact surfaces like doorknobs, keyboards, desks, and chairs.
- Increased hand hygiene with all students, with staff and visitors being required to clean their hands before boarding school buses and entering school buildings, and before and after eating, using the washroom, and using playground equipment.
- School districts may also install transparent barriers for people who have more contact with others, such as front-desk staff, bus drivers, or food services staff, where appropriate.
Monday’s announcement comes after BC’s Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry spoke last week on the the subject of masks in schools.
“I think masking is important in those situations where adults or older children are getting together in situations where they can’t maintain at least a meter distance,” she said during a press conference.. “There is a role for masks, but they are just one of the layers of protection that we have, and we’re building in many layers.”
However, “to think of a young child sitting all day in a classroom with a mask on is probably not realistic,” she said. “There’s lots of things we can do to make those environments safe without requiring someone to sit with a mask on for long periods of time.”
Asked for some clarity on when it might be appropriate for masks to be worn in a school setting, as well as some of the other measures that might be taken, Henry said: “there’s lots of things that we know about how this virus is transmitted in those settings.”
This, she furthered, “includes the way people are sitting, the way they’re facing, the distance between them, and the types of activities being done.
And while “every setting is different,” Henry said there are opportunities for schools to look at other options, “such as removing or minimizing the amount of stuff such as furniture in the classroom,” and/or paying attention to what sort of ventilation the room is equipped with.