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In less than a month, millions of kids will return to school. What do parents need to know?

Join André Picard and Nicole MacIntyre for a live Q&A on Aug. 19

British Columbia will require staff and students in middle and secondary schools to wear masks in common areas and on school buses when classes resume, a shift from the original plan, which had masks recommended but not mandatory.

The change came after British Columbia tabulated one of its highest-ever counts of new cases, 236 since Saturday. Public health officials say most cases are among young adults.

Under the new guidelines for schools issued on Monday, masks will be required in the higher grades when students and teachers are outside their classrooms in crowded common areas such as the hallway or the bus. They will also be mandatory any time students and teachers cannot maintain an appropriate distance from others outside of their learning groups. School districts are dividing students into cohorts of no more than 60 in elementary school and 120 in high-school.

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Back to school: When do school open? Are masks mandatory? A guide

Reka Gustafson, the deputy Provincial Health Officer, told reporters at Monday’s COVID-19 briefing that masks generally don’t offer a high level of protection from the virus.

“That’s why, when we do recommend them, they’re limited to the settings where usually, during brief periods of time, the other control methods cannot be used,” Dr. Gustafson said.

She said the current science shows children are not “very efficient transmitters of COVID-19″ and that it has been uncommon for adults to get the virus from working in schools.

“We have a lot of reassuring data from around the world that is telling us it’s possible to be safe,” she said.

Ontario has announced students in Grade 4 and up will be required to wear masks, including in class, while younger students will be encouraged to do the same. Alberta is requiring masks for students Grade 4 and up in common areas, but not in class for working at their desks. Quebec has done the same for students in Grade 5 and up. Nova Scotia is requiring them for high-school students in common areas.

On Friday, Calgary’s two main school boards imposed the strictest rules in the country, requiring face coverings beginning in kindergarten and, for students in the city’s public school system, in classrooms during lessons.

Last week, B.C.‘s Provincial Health Officer, Bonnie Henry, defended the province‘s earlier decision not to make masks mandatory. She said masks can interfere with students’ ability to learn, but they can help where physical distancing cannot be maintained, such as in hallways.

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“It is a challenge. To think of, particularly a young child, 10, 11, 12, sitting all day in a classroom with a mask on is probably not realistic,” she said. “There’s lots of things we can do to make those environments safe without requiring someone to sit with a mask on for long periods of time.”

The Public Health Agency of Canada developed guidelines, released last weekend in collaboration with public health experts, that recommend non-medical masks for children at the age of 10 – around Grade 4 – and older based on current evidence of COVID-19 transmission.

On Monday, the education ministry said students who can’t wear masks for medical reasons will be exempt from the updated health and safety guidelines.

B.C.‘s schools are scheduled to open on Sept. 10.

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix says the province will announce stricter penalties this week for those who flout public-health rules as COVID-19 cases climb in the region. The Canadian Press

The B.C. education ministry also said on Monday it is providing additional funding to schools to help pay for up to 1.5 million non-medical masks. The money would provide for at least two masks for every staff member and student at the province’s public schools.

A spokesperson for the ministry said it is also giving school districts new technical guidelines and checklists developed by industry experts to help improve the ventilation in classrooms.

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The BC Teachers’ Federation did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday, but has said it prefers a stricter mask policy.

The government also says it is increasing the cleaning of things like doorknobs, keyboards, desks and chairs.

As well, students, staff and visitors will be required to clean their hands before boarding school buses or entering schools. Hands will also have to be cleaned before and after eating, when using washrooms and playground equipment.

With a report from The Canadian Press

We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.

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