B.C. schools’ fall restart driving COVID infections, observers say

Critics point to lack of full mask mandate for students from kindergarten through Grade 12

The provincial government should take the lead by requiring all B.C schools to implement a full K-12 mask mandate, say critics of the current provincial policy | Chung Chow

When B.C. announced its reopening plan for the fall this summer, there was a lot of skepticism about its plan for elementary and secondary schools – especially among parents worried about the risk to children posed by COVID-19 variants.

Those fears, unfortunately, have proved to be well-founded.

According to the province’s own data, infections among children under 20 in B.C. have risen dramatically since school started. As of September 19, daily new cases among that age group in the Fraser Health region had surpassed 60 – compared with fewer than 10 during the same time last year.

The Interior Health region’s numbers also rose from below five to more than 40 cases daily, and the remaining three health regions (Vancouver Coastal, Island and Northern) are now all recording daily new cases of 15 to 25 for the under-20 age group.

“The spread is extremely concerning to me,” said Crystal Mundy, founder and researcher with non-profit group Project Canary.  “We have seen a much quicker increase in reported exposures than we did the previous year, and it has certainly been hitting the elementary schools more so than the secondary schools.”

Mundy, who has been tracking B.C.’s COVID response through statistics analysis since the summer of 2020, added that “this is highly likely to be related to the lack of a mask mandate in grades K-3 and lack of basic measures to prevent transmission within the classroom” prior to last week.

Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry officially announced a province-wide K-3 mask mandate in late September, after school boards in Vancouver, Surrey and Burnaby announced their own comprehensive mask mandates days earlier.

Mundy has compiled a daily newsletter to parents based on independently reported COVID exposures in B.C. schools – a move that has filled an information gap left by the province, parents say. According to Mundy’s data, the number of reported exposures has jumped to 244 for the week ending on October 1 from seven during the first week of class.

For Mundy, it’s “extremely disappointing” that the province did not announce a provincewide mask mandate for the entire student population K-12 (the current mandate covers only 4-12) from the start of the school year - when it was clear that the Delta variant can spread among children and that masks are known to reduce infection rates.

“There is absolutely no reason the children in B.C. public schools should be subject to conditions that the government themselves refuse to work in,” Mundy said, noting that the provincial health orders for workplaces have been much more strict than the ones placed on schools. “The Provincial Health Office is still engaging in Zoom-based meetings, yet expect classrooms of 25 to 30 to continue on with no measures.”

For its part, the Vancouver School Board (VSB) said its choice to extend the mask mandate to K-12 on September 28 was enacted as soon as possible given the feedback from parents and teachers.

School board chair Carmen Cho noted that September 28 was the board’s first meeting of the year – the earliest possible time that it could implement a mask-mandate extension.

“For us at the district, the health and safety of our staff and students continue to be our top priority,” Cho said. “We understand that we are still very much in a pandemic that’s mostly impacting the unvaccinated, so trustees decided an additional layer of protection we can implement is to extend the mask mandate.

“We have students living with immuno-compromised family members, and those youngest students are not able to be vaccinated,” Cho continued. “So this is something we can put in place to protect all our students and staff.… We thank our parents’ co-operation as we continue to navigate this pandemic, and we are so appreciative of all that the parents do to support us in this new normal.”

Surrey schools and Burnaby's counterparts then followed suit in adopting a K-12 mask mandate, which was days before Henry's announcement of a province-wide mandate.

Given the extent of COVID’s spread in B.C. schools, there was no reason a K-12 mask mandate should not have been in place earlier, said BC Teachers’ Federation president Teri Mooring. She said that a joint survey with the University of British Columbia found that teachers in the province have reported widespread declines in physical and mental health last year over working during the pandemic – and that situation has likely worsened this year with schools now fully open while a complete mask mandate wasn't in place.

“I wish other school boards would have emergency meetings to make … decisions [like the VSB’s],” Mooring said. “It’s within their responsibility as employers; they are obligated to create a healthy and safe environment. It seems really odd that that safety measures [set by the provincial health order] can’t be exceeded. Schools are the only place where there’s even a question about that, and we are not even talking about spending money here. A mask mandate would not cost anything.”

Mooring said there are other measures that either the school districts or the province must institute soon. They range from comprehensive COVID testing at schools, an improved exposure notification system to better contact tracing by working with teachers on the front lines and a stronger vaccination drive for students aged 12 to 17.

Mooring also noted the same concerns as Mundy about the general lack of COVID data at schools.

She called the situation “bizarre.”

“We think we are doing our part,” she said. “We are meeting at the ministry’s steering committee. We are raising alarms there. We have requested a meeting with the provincial health officer, and we are optimistic that will happen. We are raising awareness in the public and pushing for the measures that we think should be in place.

“In part, we need the data. And that’s still a problem; although it will still be on websites, they have stopped sending notifications home to families. We think that means families with access to technology will have access to that information, and the families without that access will not.”

Mundy added that, while much attention has been paid to the COVID situation in Alberta (where daily new cases have now exceeded 1,500, prompting the launch of health triage to deal with hospital bed shortages), B.C. must now concentrate its efforts on containing COVID’s spread in schools to avoid a similar situation.

She added that her concerns for children and increased exposure to COVID is long-term.

“For children, I don’t worry about now – I worry about later,” she said. “Sweden and the U.K. chose such strategies of ‘living with the virus,’ and Sweden has seen mass influxes of MIS-C cases among children and high rates of disability. Is that what we are walking our own children into willingly? At this point, I do believe that is the case.” •