British Columbia’s top doctor says there is no need for individual schools to set more stringent policies requiring students to wear masks beyond guidelines issued by her office.
Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry made the comments after a Port Moody principal tried to mandate masks for students at all times, quickly reversing his order upon learning he was not to override the provincial directives.
“It’s above and beyond what we feel is needed, given the evidence,” Dr. Henry said Thursday. “I think [schools] need to look at where masks are going to be a benefit and where they may be a hindrance, because we know there’s challenges, particularly for younger children.”
Under B.C.’s latest guidelines, masks are required for all staff and students in middle and secondary school when they are in high-traffic areas such as on buses and in hallways. Staff and students can choose to voluntarily wear masks in other settings.
A Sept. 1 principal’s message, posted on the Heritage Woods Secondary School website, said the school had implemented a stringent mask policy “basically making masks mandatory at all times while in the building” except when students were in specific learning groups.
After feedback from concerned parents, the note continued, that policy had been changed so that masks would be expected in learning groups, with the only exceptions being for students who couldn’t wear masks for medical reasons.
In summary, “students will be expected to wear their masks whenever they are in the building,” the note added.
By the following day, Sept. 2, that policy had been reversed.
“It has since come to my attention that I am not able to override the expectations of the provincial health officer,” Todd Clerkson wrote in a retraction notice sent out Wednesday, CBC reported.
“My intention was to add some peace of mind for students, parents and staff by adding an extra layer of protection,” he said. “I sincerely apologize for the confusion and flip-flopping.”
Mr. Clerkson on Thursday declined a request for comment from The Globe and Mail.
Asked whether schools were explicitly prohibited from implementing such a policy, Dr. Henry said her office “would have a discussion about the pros and cons of the policy with the individual school and their local school officer.”
The Provincial Health Officer reiterated that there would be layers of protection within school settings, such as face shields for teachers, grouping students into learning cohorts and minimizing contact between them.
Asked about the issue on Thursday, Education Minister Rob Fleming said the rules relied on “science-based advice, and the authority for that is the provincial health officer and the other regulatory agencies around occupational health and safety.”
“We have heard very clearly from our top scientists that wearing a mask for every single minute of the day and in every part of a school setting is not realistic. It’s not feasible,” he said.
As some teachers express anxiety of over the challenges of maintaining proper physical distancing between students in cramped classrooms, Dr. Henry also said Thursday that one metre of distance – as opposed to two – is acceptable in controlled environments such as schools and workplaces.
“There is a gradation,” she said. “We know that two metres is better than one metre, is better than zero.
“But what we’re saying is that in a controlled environment, so, children sitting at desks in a classroom ... in rows next to each other, then somewhere in between there is perfectly safe. Those are the things that we’re learning about the virus, but it’s also in the context of the other measures that we have in place.”
British Columbia announced 89 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, bringing the total number of active cases to 1,175.
To date, 4,644 people in B.C. have recovered from the disease, and 210 have died.
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