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A crossing guard stops traffic as students, wearing face masks to curb the spread of COVID-19, arrive at Ecole Woodward Hill Elementary School, in Surrey, B.C., on Feb. 23, 2021.DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press

British Columbia is bringing back its mask mandate, requiring everyone to cover their faces in all indoor public spaces – including within classrooms for students from Grade 4 through to post-secondary.

The policy is a reversal from July 1, when B.C. and other Western provinces eased mask requirements as vaccination rates climbed. On Tuesday, B.C. and Manitoba re-imposed mandates amid surging cases of the Delta variant. In comparison, Ontario has never relaxed its mask rules.

B.C.’s reintroduced mandate will take effect Wednesday, as students prepare to return to classrooms in early September and the province introduces vaccine cards for residents over the age of 12.

However, when it comes to mandatory vaccinations, B.C.’s top doctor and higher education minister are not following the lead of other provinces that have allowed post-secondary institutions to require students, staff and faculty to be vaccinated or to undergo frequent testing in order to be on campuses.

Instead, Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry said Tuesday universities and colleges can require staff and faculty to get immunized but cannot force pupils to get vaccinated – unless those students are either living in student housing or studying health sciences and entering healthcare settings.

“We don’t believe there is a need for a vaccine mandate for students to receive in-class education in post-secondary institutions,” Dr. Henry said, adding that assigned seating and masks help mitigate the risks.

“We have learned a lot from what happened in K-12, we know the in-classroom setting is the least of the risky settings, so there are other measures in place.”

This summer, universities across Ontario, Saskatchewan and Alberta have announced students, staff, faculty and visitors must prove they have been immunized or undergo regular testing.

In Ontario on Tuesday, the Council of Ontario Medical Officers of Health, which represents the top doctors in all 34 public health units across the province, released its official recommendation that colleges and universities all require anyone without a medical excuse to prove they have been vaccinated before coming to campus.

“Rapid testing protocols are not preventive and are not a replacement for immunization and should be used only in instances where vaccination is not possible,” wrote chairman Charles Gardner.

In B.C., university student and faculty groups welcomed the province’s move to bring back its mask mandate, but questioned why unlike other provinces vaccines won’t be required for those attending post-secondary classes this fall.

Lynne Marks, a history professor and president of the University of Victoria’s faculty association, said Dr. Henry and the province should not be basing post-secondary rules on lessons learned earlier in the pandemic from elementary and high schools, which were only allowed to have up to two dozen students in any given class.

“It reflects a dramatic lack of understanding as to how post-secondary works,” she said. “In universities like UVic, UBC and SFU we’re talking about 300 students or more in one class and then going off to another class and a third class.”

That presents serious risks to those in classrooms even if only a minority are unvaccinated and everyone is masked, Ms. Marks said. She added that professors have also voiced concerns that they could pass the virus on to their children under 12, who the province said may be given vaccinations by later this fall.

Cole Evans, president of the non-profit Alma Mater Society that represents the University of B.C.’s 56,000 students, said he doesn’t understand why someone going to one of Vancouver’s theatres will soon have to show proof they are vaccinated but an unvaccinated student will be able walk into a lecture hall with hundreds of other students without clearing the same hurdle.

“What is the difference between those two settings?” Mr. Evans said. “We’d really appreciate some clarity from the government and I’m sure the university would appreciate it too. And for that clarity to be given publicly so that the community can understand the rationale behind these decisions.”

In recent days, cases have surged in B.C. and the province has now postponed the wider reopening of society initially planned for the second week of September. Instead, B.C. announced Monday it will be launching its vaccine passport system Sept. 13, which applies to non-essential activities such as going to the movies or watching sporting events indoors.

Mr. Evans said his organization did a survey of UBC students in July about returning to campus and found 96 per cent of respondents had at least one dose of a vaccine. While many students are at a lower risk for serious complications if they do get the virus, he cautioned there are also many vulnerable students and faculty needing more protection from the Delta variant.

A UBC spokesperson said Tuesday that the school would be releasing a statement later that afternoon, but it did not come out before the Globe’s deadline.

UVic President Kevin Hall praised the return of B.C.’s mask mandate and the upcoming vaccine passport system in a video statement released Tuesday. He urged people to get vaccinated at on-campus clinics in September and said the university is surveying students and staff on vaccination rates, but did not mention requiring anyone to get immunized to work or attend class.

The province also announced Tuesday that it would not require elementary and high school teachers get immunized, noting the risk of transmission in these settings is low. Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside said vaccine uptake among teachers is high, but there is no mechanism for the government to track what percentage of that workforce has been vaccinated.

On Tuesday, Manitoba announced a new new rule forcing teachers and all other frontline government employees to get their second dose of vaccine by Halloween or undergo regular COVID-19 testing on the job. In Quebec, elementary and high school students will be required to wear masks inside classrooms when schools resume across nine regions including Montreal, the province’s education minister said Tuesday.

With a report from Alex Cyr in Toronto and the Canadian Press

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