British Columbia

B.C. teachers support new mask guidelines, but were hoping for more

Teachers are welcoming stricter mask guidance for students in B.C. schools after an announcement on Monday from Dr. Bonnie Henry, but the language of the updated guidelines isn't quite as firm as some had expected.

Uncertainty about exact rules in schools continues after Monday announcement

A kindergarten student in Toronto is pictured wearing a mask in the playground in February. Health officials in British Columbia announced new mask guidelines for students on Monday. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

UPDATE, March 31, 2021: All B.C. students in grades 4-12 now required to wear masks indoors, ministry says

Teachers are welcoming stricter mask guidance for students in B.C. schools, but the language of the updated advice isn't quite as firm as some had expected.

On Monday, as part of a set of tougher new COVID-19 measures to address rising case numbers and the increase in variants of the virus, B.C.'s provincial health officer outlined new school mask guidelines. 

"We are going to be updating our K-12 public health guidance to support masks for all students down to Grade 4 in schools across the province," Dr. Bonnie Henry said at a media briefing.

On Saturday, the Surrey school district announced that — by order of the medical health officer — all K-12 staff and all students in grades 4-12 are required to wear non-medical masks in all indoor areas.

The updated B.C. government website echoes Henry's language, which stops short of calling the announcement a requirement.

"Public health guidance for K-12 schools has been updated to support and encourage students in grade 4 to 12 to wear masks at school," the website reads.

But Teri Mooring, president of the B.C. Teachers' Federation, says the change is understood as a requirement for students in Grade 4 and above province-wide.

"Despite some vague wording, we have been assured by the Ministry of Education that today's announcement equates to a province-wide expansion of the orders that were introduced in Surrey over the weekend," said Mooring in a written statement. 

Encouragement versus requirement

At local teachers' associations in the Vancouver Coastal Health region, the expectation was also that the update would be an order, not a softly-worded piece of guidance.

"I would want to see a rule that's clear, like we see in Surrey. In Richmond we had the ability to encourage [mask use] since September," said Liz Baverstock, president of the Richmond Teachers' Association. "I would want to see more than that."

Baverstock said most students, especially in secondary schools in Richmond, already wear masks nearly all the time.

But she said toughening the rules would help get education on mask use, including how to properly wear them and remove them, to families by means of the students.

"Students are some of your best ambassadors for telling people what you're doing right and what you're doing wrong," said Baverstock.

"I don't know why it took so long. We've certainly seen mask mandates happen in other provinces, other countries and so as teachers, we've all been asking, 'why not in B.C.?'" she said, adding that she's in touch with the other teachers' associations in the region and they're all aligned on the issue.

The B.C. Teachers' Federation, while welcoming the announcement and noting the unfulfilled expectation that masks will be an actual requirement, also highlighted other continuing health concerns in classrooms, including the need for better ventilation in some schools.

Primary teacher Chrystal Tagmann is pictured in her modified classroom at Bridgeview Elementary in Surrey, British Columbia on Wednesday, August 26, 2020. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The federation also continued its call for a hybrid learning option to allow for more physical distancing in classrooms, especially where there are high levels of community COVID-19 transmission.

The president of the B.C. Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils declined an interview request about the updated mask guidelines on Monday.

CBC News asked the health ministry to clarify whether there was a public health order or different language expected on the issue of mask rules in schools. The ministry had not responded by Monday evening.