The head of the union that represents nearly 1,000 Prince George teachers is wondering why schools were exempt from a new provincial heath order issued Thursday which requires mask to be worn indoors in public places.
Joanne Hapke, president of the Prince George District Teachers’ Association, says it’s in the best interests of educators, students and parents to make mask-wearing mandatory in schools to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Three Prince George schools have each had at least one positive test confirmed over the past three months since the school year began. School officials acted promptly and there was no transmission of the virus in either of those cases. But with winter fast approaching, people will be staying indoors to escape the cold and Hapke is concerned schools will be more prone to outbreaks and she believes masks would help lessen the risk.
“We’re disappointed, we deserve the same protections that community members get, that other businesses get,” said Hapke. “To have people coming into their place to be protected, we deserve that in schools. People are saying COVID isn’t in our schools, that people bring it into our schools, and that is correct. We have people entering and we should have the minimum protection that is available and that’s a mask.”
Students, teachers and staff at schools in other provinces are mandated to wear masks but Hapke said in B.C. schools that rule only applies where mixing of student cohorts occurs and physical distancing is not possible. School administrators as well as individuals who do not belong to a cohort are required to wear a mask when it is not possible to maintain a two-metre distance, whether that is in common areas or classrooms.
“In high schools, my understanding was if you’re in a hallway at all, you’re supposed to be wearing a mask,” Hapke said.
“What we are allowed to do is model good mask-wearing behaviour, but I don’t know if all teachers are wearing masks. If everybody did only what they had to do, so we’re not shopping in malls and if we have to go and get something, go get it and leave, and wear a mask while you’re there. If the community stepped up, we can potentially keep COVID out of the schools.”
The province has reported that of the first 22,000 cases of COVID-19, 540 were connected to a B.C. school. According to School District 57 administrators, only 12 cases have resulted from an exposure at a school. The district says its schools are four times safer that the general community.
“There is abundant evidence that schools are safe,” said School District 57 chair Trent Derrick. “Students and staff within schools are safe. It is clear our health authority-approved safety plans and protocols are working.
“The cleaning and hygiene protocols we have in place in our schools work.”
SD 57 policy makes masks mandatory in secondary schools. People are not allowed to enter schools without a mask and have to wear one when they walk the hallways or congregate in common areas. There are structured times during the day when students can take off their masks. In elementary schools, masks are required in certain situations and optional at other times.
SD 57 superintendent Anita Richardson says the mental well-being of students and what they gain from their ability to attend their classes in person helps mitigate the negative effects of extended lockdowns, closures and reduced services brought on by the pandemic.
“Children and youth have been disproportionately impacted by the controls the province has put in place,” said Richardson. “Their mental health is a serious concern and it is important schools remain safe and open in order to maintain some sense of normalcy.”
Reduced class sizes are being used in other districts as a way combat the rising threat of the pandemic. In COVID hotspots such as the Fraser Valley, where outbreaks forced three schools to close last week, the B.C. Teachers Federation has asked the province to cut class sizes in half, to 15 students per classroom, as the Vancouver school district has already done.
Cases in the Northern Health region continued to spike this week, with 25 new cases reported Friday afternoon, bringing the total to a record 95 active cases in the northern half of the province.
Of the three Prince George schools in which positive cases were recorded, two of those happened in the past month in elementary schools. Ron Brent had a positive case two weeks ago and Van Bien had its first case confirmed last week. In October, Prince George Secondary School became the first local school on the COVID list.
“If we even got what we were looking for – 50 per cent capacity – we would need to create a schedule, so the students would not be receiving full face-to-face instruction,” said Hapke. “So there would potentially have to be a remote learning opportunity for them as well to make it happen. If we were presented that as a problem, we would find the solution.
“Especially in the Lower Mainland, where the outbreaks are really severe right now, the BCTF would like to have that (reduced class sizes) for all school districts. But specifically right now, that’s where the hotspot is, let’s address that right now.”
After the first COVID exposure in a Prince George school happened Oct. 2, Hapke said the lines of communication between health officials and school staff have dramatically improved.
“It just seems I’m not being contacted the same way as after the PGSS case, where I was inundated with concerns and phone calls, and now it’s not the same,” said Hapke. “I’m hopeful that Northern Health was reflecting on their practice or people are just sharing a little bit more information.
“The fears have never truly subsided, you can get them under control and then they’ll flare a bit when another announcement is made. Hopefully, with every announcement, people start to reflect on their health and safety practices. Are you following all the protocols, washing your hands before you change activities and are you wearing your mask especially when you’re supposed to be and limiting what you do outside of your work?”