British Columbia

Some parents frustrated as B.C. removes 'layer of protection' in schools by dropping mask mandate

Advocates in B.C. are raising concerns about COVID-19 transmission among children after the province dropped mask requirements.

One parent pulling immunocompromised child from school, advocate concerned about effect of spring break

Some parents in B.C. are expressing concern after the province announced Thursday that masks would no longer be required in schools after spring break. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Advocates in B.C. are raising concerns about COVID-19 transmission after the province announced masks would no longer be required in schools after spring break. 

Health officials announced Thursday, a day ahead of spring break for many K-12 students in B.C., that almost all public health restrictions in the province are being lifted. 

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry described schools as "low-risk" environments during a news conference announcing the end of restrictions.

"We know that as risk goes down in the community, that's reflected in risk in these structured lower risk environments," she said.

Henry said schools would be a "mask positive" environment, but they would not be mandated. Requirements to stagger meal breaks and keep kids physically distanced are also being dropped in schools.

In a school year that has seen no public exposure notices posted in schools and frustration over safety measures from parents, the latest announcement is leaving some on edge.

Vancouver resident Chantal Moore is pulling her daughter Josie out of school, saying the lack of masks puts her immunocompromised daughter at risk.

Chantal Moore, left, is seen with her 10-year-old daughter Josie. Josie has asthma and is at a higher risk of serious infection if she contracts COVID-19. (Submitted by Chantal Moore)

Josie, 10, has asthma and was hospitalized with the flu as a toddler, her mother said. 

"I saw her go to school this past month. She had a sparkle in her eye," Moore told CBC News. "She actually loves being in the classroom. And she met a new best friend over the past month.

"I think she's quite crushed and you can see a change in her mood. It's a bit heartbreaking."

Moore is now preparing for the prospect of homeschooling her daughter for the rest of the year while juggling a full-time job.

"It's really tough. My daughter doesn't learn as well from home. She loves the in-classroom interactions," she said.

"Something as simple as a mask can help her and help others stay safe."

Chantal Moore and her children, two-year-old Wesley and 10-year-old Josie, are seen in this picture. Chantal says protecting her toddler from COVID-19 is also a priority for her. (Submitted by Chantal Moore)

Lack of vaccine coverage

In addition to the concerns over Josie's health, Moore also has a two-year-old son, Wesley, who is not yet eligible to be vaccinated.

Kyenta Martins, another mother in Vancouver and a member of the advocacy group Safe Schools Coalition B.C., said the percentage of eligible children that are vaccinated in B.C. is concerning.

"Less than half ... of five to 11-year-olds have two doses of vaccine," she said. "We know that under five-year-olds can't have any vaccine, and that [masks] are their only protection.

 

"It's putting us in a position where, absolutely, there is going to be transmission in schools."

Martins says she is particularly concerned about the effects of spring break on transmission among children, particularly because the long-term effects of infection in kids is still unknown.

"It's frustrating and I don't understand why our children's health isn't the primary goal for our minister of education, our minister of health, and our public health officer," she said.

'Layers of protection'

Henry has continually referred to the "layers of protection" in schools as the reason why they are safe.

Some of the measures listed among B.C.'s current COVID safety guidelines — which are set to be updated after spring break — include physical distancing, improved ventilation systems, and vaccination.

But with vaccination not being as effective in preventing the spread of the Omicron variant, and inconsistent use of HEPA air filters among schools in B.C., Martins says masks were the last safety measure parents were relying on.

"Kids cannot social distance. One, the classrooms aren't big enough and two, kids want to be with each other," she said.

 

"We need to open all the windows, we need to open the door, we need to turn on our HEPA filtration … but we don't have any of these tools, and now we've lost another layer of protection."

Martins and Moore are calling on the province to improve ventilation systems, consider outdoor teaching environments as the weather gets better, and reinstate masks in schools.

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