British Columbia

Masks will play a 'significant' role in B.C. schools in September: Education Minister

B.C. Education Minister Rob Fleming said on Monday that masks will play a "significant" role in B.C.'s back-to-school plan for September — though students in the province will not be required to wear them in classrooms.

Rob Fleming says masks won't be mandatory in classrooms, but used in other situations

Canada's federal public health agency on Friday released guidelines for slowing the spread of the coronavirus among students and staff when schools reopen in September. (Shutterstock / Halfpoint)

B.C. Education Minister Rob Fleming said on Monday that masks will play a "significant" role in the province's back-to-school plan for September — though students will not be required to wear them in classrooms.

Students, teachers, and staff in B.C. will be required to wear masks in situations where physical distancing cannot be maintained. The province will also be providing masks. 

"In Canada there are some provinces that don't require masks at all and are not providing them. We are providing them and have required them in some situations," Fleming told reporters on Monday.

Fleming said the province will be monitoring protocols implemented by other provinces to determine the best way forward for B.C.

Federal guidelines recommend masks for students over 10

Canada's federal public health agency on Friday released guidelines for slowing the spread of the coronavirus among students and staff when schools reopen in September. 

The guidelines for school administrators recommend that students over the age of 10 wear masks, that students and teachers stay two metres apart wherever possible, and that students and teachers be grouped together to reduce the number of people they come into close contact with.

The federal guidelines, which are not prescriptive, are meant to supplement those provided by provincial and territorial governments and local public health authorities. 

Students are pictured being welcomed back to school with physical distancing protocols in place at Lynn Valley Elementary in North Vancouver, B.C., on June 1. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Plans for how to safely send students back to school vary widely across the country.

Ontario has announced that masks will be required for students from Grades four to 12. In Nova Scotia, they will be required in high school hallways and in common areas, and for all students on buses.

In Quebec masks will be mandatory in common areas for grades five and up, and optional in class. Alberta will also require students of those ages to wear masks but only while in hallways, common areas and while working closely with others.

Masks 'interfere' with learning: Henry

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said on Monday that while there is "absolutely a place for masks" in a plan to keep students, staff, and teachers safe, they remain the "least effective layer" of protection that is needed.

"We also know that masks interfere with the ability to learn. So I think that there's a lot more that we need to understand, but right now the role of masks in those schools will be in those settings where you cannot maintain social distancing, in hallways and settings like that for older children," she said.

"It is a challenge and to think of a young child sitting all day in a classroom with a mask on is probably unrealistic."

Henry added that other measures — B.C.'s learning group system, staggered recesses, spacing between desks and increasing ventilation — are the most important policies being brought in to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in schools come September.

"There's lots of things that we can do to make those environments safe without requiring somebody to sit with a mask on for long periods of time," she said, adding that she will continue to monitor all data and research tracking the transmission and use of masks for children.

Asked about widespread transmission of COVID-19 in some U.S. schools and summer camps that have re-opened, Henry said that transmission in schools reflects wider community spread — raising the stakes for B.C. to flatten its now rising curve.

"What's happening in schools reflects what's happening in our communities. And that's why all of us have to do what we can to make sure our schools stay safe," she said.

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