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A physical distancing sign is seen during a media tour of Hastings Elementary school in Vancouver on Sept. 2, 2020.JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

B.C. is expanding the mandatory wearing of masks in schools as parents and teachers increasingly have been calling for new protective measures to make the education system safer.

High-school and middle-school students will now be required to wear masks in class, under new guidelines announced Thursday.

Until now, B.C. has only required students to wear masks in common areas, but Thursday’s order brings the province in line with Alberta, Ontario and Quebec, which have had mask requirements in classrooms for months.

Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry had been under pressure, by teachers worried about their safety, to toughen up the guidelines. She said Thursday that there has been little pandemic spread in the education system, but there are exposures in the community leading to the need to update the plan for schools.

Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside, appointed to the cabinet post after last October’s provincial election, said government wanted to change its approach in response to talks with stakeholders about their concerns.

“We certainly have been learning as the pandemic has unfolded,” Ms. Whiteside said at a news conference. “We have been learning what has been working and what hasn’t been working in our schools,”

The head of the B.C. Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) welcomed the new rules, but said more needs to be done.

“It’s absolutely progress and a step in the right direction. I would say it doesn’t go far enough,” BCTF president Teri Mooring said in an interview. “And the people who say it doesn’t go far enough are the actual people that work in the classrooms.”

Ms. Mooring noted that the guidelines haven’t been updated since September, adding, “These changes are far too long in coming.”

She said she suspects the shifts are the result of a new minister as well as uncertainty around COVID-19 variants.

With the new rules, middle and secondary students and staff from kindergarten to Grade 12 will be required to wear non-medical masks except when sitting or standing at their classroom seats or work stations, when there is a barrier in place or when they are eating and drinking.

Masks had only been required in high-traffic areas of B.C. schools such as hallways or when students in learning groups could not maintain a safe distance from each other.

At this point, about 90 per cent of public-school students have returned to classes in British Columbia, said Stephanie Higginson, president of the BC School Trustees Association.

The federal government has provided B.C. a total $242.4-million in two equal instalments to support the safe restart of schools. This is on top of $45.6-million the province provided schools last September.

In a statement, the Education Ministry said that school districts and independent schools have used available funding to hire more staff and purchase masks, other personal protective equipment and cleaning supplies. They’ve also supported remote learning and improving school ventilation and air-quality systems.

Ms. Mooring said the BCTF is skeptical about the practice of school cohorts, groups of students and staff who are supposed to only interact with each other in an educational setting. She said the COVID-19 virus can spread within them. The federation prefers further measures to reduce the density of groups in schools. “We don’t see the cohorts themselves as a particularly adequate safety precaution.”

The BCTF said actions are required on reducing school and classroom density to help staff and students maintain physical distance. It also said more measures are needed to deal with ventilation in schools and the inadequacy of contact tracing.

During her news conference, Ms. Whiteside said some school districts have taken action on ventilation, as well as staggered arrival and break times to reduce congestion. “There are very many measures that schools and districts have implemented to try to reduce density and those measures will, of course, continue,” she said.

The BCTF head said the federation wants children 10 years old and older wearing masks. “We want children to wear masks because we know how the virus is transmitted,” she said. “We absolutely understand that mask wearing, by itself, does not resolve all issues. But when we’re not only looking at feeling more safe but being more safe in a work environment and classroom, we don’t see why masks are being so resisted.”

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