VANCOUVER — British Columbia's provincial health officer has mandated masks for all schoolchildren across the province after three school districts announced their own policies to include kindergarten-to-Grade 3 students.
It's the second school-policy change in the last week based on pressure from parents after Dr. Bonnie Henry announced a resumption in notifications of COVID-19 exposures, now through postings on the sites of health authorities and the B.C. Centre for Disease Control instead of letters from schools to parents.
School districts in Vancouver, Surrey and Burnaby had already announced that a provincial mask mandate for students in Grade 4 and up would be extended to younger kids on Monday, leaving 57 other school districts to either introduce policies independently or wait for Henry to impose a provincewide measure.
In announcing the across-the-board mask mandate Friday, Henry said she has heard the concerns of parents and teachers as cases have risen rapidly over the last couple of weeks among kids, especially those between the ages of five and 11, and in communities with lower vaccination rates.
Henry said the extended school mask mandate will be in place until at least January, when it will be assessed based on whether vaccines would be available for children under 12.
The province recorded 714 more cases of COVID-19 on Friday, along with 11 deaths, for a total of 1,973 fatalities. There were 22 outbreaks in health facilities, mostly in long-term care homes, but also in two hospitals, one each in the Northern and Interior health regions.
A rising number of infections among children has led to more exposure to the virus "and several school outbreaks have also been detected and reported," she said.
Most of the COVID-19 transmission continues to occur in homes and through social networks as a significant number of kids are being tested for the illness, Henry said.
She encouraged parents and others in the community to get vaccinated and said school staff should also ensure they get their shots to reduce the risk of COVID-19 entering schools so families can gather at Thanksgiving as more contagious illnesses like respiratory syncytial virus are circulating compared with last year.
Influenza cases are also expected to be higher this year and cause worse illness in children compared with COVID-19 so they should be getting vaccinated against that respiratory infection, Henry said.
"I ask workplaces to be more flexible to support parents so that they can get through this new few months as we navigate this phase of our pandemic."
The provincial health officer said a return to learning cohorts has not been considered because that approach caused significant challenges in the operation of schools when other strategies like reducing group gatherings and assemblies have been more effective in lowering transmission of COVID-19.
Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside said school districts have done the work of maintaining and upgrading heating and ventilation systems, while efforts are underway to provide affordable air filters in districts where that is warranted.
"For example, in Abbotsford, the school district has invested in a portable air filtration system for deployment where they are unable to upgrade the mechanical HVAC system," Whiteside said.
Some parents have complained that information about exposures and cases at schools is not being posted online fast enough so children can be kept at home if necessary.
Henry said positive lab tests among school-aged children are being prioritized for followup within 24 hours as members of a public health team call parents about where their kids were during the period they were infectious so possible clusters in schools and communities can be quickly identified.
However, public health resources for contact tracing are stretched and a large number of cases in the Northern Health region and parts of Interior Health means there can be a delay of two or three days in posting information for the school community, she said.
Kyenta Martins, spokeswoman for the parent-driven group Safe Schools Coalition BC, said any lack in resources should be remedied because parents want a clear picture of what's happening at schools as quickly as possible.
She said an online parent-led page called "BC School COVID Tracker," which posts exposure and case information based on verifiable data from parents, would continue to be a go-to source if there's a continuing lag in information posted by public health officials.
Henry welcomed that approach, so parents are well informed.
"Sometimes parents will know, and they'll know the information from other parents prior to public health getting all the pieces connected together."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 1, 2021.
Camille Bains, The Canadian Press
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version said B.C. recorded 714 deaths due to COVID-19 on Friday.