British Columbia

More protection from respiratory viruses needed in classrooms, B.C. parents and advocates say

Parents and health-care advocates are calling for a return to mask mandates and better air filtration in schools amid concerns of a surge in respiratory viruses.

Health ministry says it is not currently looking at reintroducing mask mandates

A group of masked children in a line.
Students are pictured wearing masks during a school day in Vancouver on Oct. 1, 2021. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Parents and health-care advocates are calling for a return to mask mandates and better air filtration in schools amid concerns of a surge in respiratory viruses.

Kyenta Martins, vice-chair of the Vancouver District Parents Advisory Council (DPAC), is calling for devices such as Corsi-Rosenthal boxes — an easy-to-build, do-it-yourself air cleaner that can be made from a box fan and furnace filters — to be used in classrooms.

She is also calling for a return to masking. 

"We could be bringing in rules and guidance to hopefully take some pressure off of the health-care workers, but that's not being done," Martins said on CBC's Early Edition. 

B.C. Children's Hospital said last week it was seeing a spike in visits to its emergency department and is bracing for an increase in respiratory illnesses.

Family physician Dr. Anna Wolak says flu season has hit much harder than usual this fall. 

"We're all seeing the number of sicker children. We're hearing reports about some absences at schools because kids are getting sick." 

Ministry, school board responds

In a written statement, B.C.'s health ministry said it recognizes that hospitals and emergency departments across Canada, including B.C., are seeing higher than normal volumes of patients, including children, but on Monday maintained visits to hospitals for things like flu were still within the normal range.

As of Monday, it said the occupancy rate for children's high acuity and pediatric ICU beds across the province is approximately 76.2 per cent. 

"With regards to public health measures, we are not looking at reintroducing mask mandates at this time," the ministry said. 

The Vancouver School Board says student absences are currently below 10 per cent for schools across the district, which is typical for this time of year. 

In a statement, the school board said the district follows public health orders, adding that schools are "mask-friendly environments."

It says it has taken measures to improve ventilation and air filtration by starting ventilation equipment earlier in the day and having them run long after occupancy.

And it has upgraded and retrofitted ventilation equipment with MERV-13 filters, as recommended by the Ministry of Education. It also ensures exterior windows are accessible and can be opened and closed by staff and students.

Open letter to provincial leaders

A number of B.C. organizations, including the advocacy group Safe Schools Coalition and Protect Our Province — a group of health-care professionals, scientists and advocates who say they want evidence-based policies — penned an open letter calling on the province to reinstate mandatory masking in all public indoor spaces in B.C., including schools.

The letter, which was addressed to premier-designate David Eby, Health Minister Adrian Dix and Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside, said there is a lack of data around ventilation in B.C. classrooms, and high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters have not been provided in most classrooms in the province. 

"Without all these measures in place, masks are currently the only sure way to limit the amount of virus in the air that school children and educators breathe," the letter reads.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Michelle Gomez is a CBC writer in Vancouver. You can contact her at michelle.gomez@cbc.ca.

With files from The Canadian Press

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