COVID-19: With one month before back-to-school, some questioning safety protocols

Parents, school teachers and university students are among those calling for an indoor mask mandate in B.C. schools and post-secondary institutions.

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Kaye Banez was feeling relieved Friday after deciding to withdraw her kids from their school and enrol them in a distributed learning program.

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“When the COVID case numbers were low, I was feeling confident that I could send them back to school in September,” she explained. “But as soon as we entered phase 3 and masks were no longer mandated, I was back in panic mode.”

Banez’s son Lazarus is autistic and requires “hands on” support at school, making it impossible for him to adhere to COVID-19 safety protocols. He’s 9, so not eligible to get vaccinated. Banez’s daughter, Estella, is also too young to get the shot.

“These are our precious little children and it seems like the risk to them is being forgotten,” she said.

Banez said she decided to home-school her children and expects other parents of vulnerable kids may choose to do the same.

“It will be a huge undertaking for us as parents, and it’s sad that we have to do this, but it goes back to the government not understanding the needs of all students,” she said.

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B.C. Teachers’ Federation president Teri Mooring said teachers are also concerned about the safety of students under 12 years of age.

“We are still living in a pandemic and it is important that our health and safety guidelines reflect that,” she said.

The BCTF wants the mask mandate maintained and classrooms with inadequate ventilation upgraded.

Some university students and staff are also questioning the government’s back-to-school plans.

This week, teaching support staff, faculty and students from several B.C. post-secondary institutions posted an open letter to B.C.’s advanced education minister, Anne Kang, asking for stronger health protocols on campus.

“The B.C. COVID-19 return-to-campus guidelines are not consistent with the best available evidence, do not follow the precautionary principle, and disregard the layers of protection that could prevent COVID-19 transmission in post-secondary environments,” said Katie Gravestock, the chief steward for the teaching support staff union at Simon Fraser University.

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The union, along with several other unions representing teaching staff and faculty, is asking for an indoor mask mandate, occupancy limits and classroom configurations that allow for physical distancing.

Andrew Longhurst, a PhD student researching health policy and politics at SFU, called the COVID-19 Delta variant a “game-changer.”

“The Central Okanagan outbreak, leading to hundreds of cases, should be a wake-up call that the current post-secondary guidelines are entirely inadequate,” he said.

SFU media director Angela Wilson said the school is reviewing the open letter and will respond in the coming days.

In late July, the University of B.C.’s Alma Mater Society also passed a motion calling on UBC to require vaccinations for people living in student residences and masks in lecture halls.

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UBC president Santa Ono said the university is working with health officials to deliver vaccinations on campus using mobile units and has developed “detailed safety plans” for every space. He recommended students returning to campus be fully vaccinated and that “all members of the community continue to wear masks indoors.”

“The provincial health officer has the authority to issue additional public health measures such as mandatory masking, if required,” he said. “In fact, this has already occurred in the Okanagan region, which includes UBC Okanagan, because of a renewed COVID outbreak there.”

Asked about post-secondary institutions on Thursday, the provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, said the government understands the significance of in-classroom learning for students.

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“We know how important that is – and how challenging it was, particularly for people who were starting their university career last fall,” she said, adding discussions about safety continue with universities across the province. “We have the basics in place to make sure we can have in-classroom learning across post-secondary institutions in B.C. and we will continue to work with them into the fall.”

But Henry said universities will need guidelines on “what we’re going to do in those settings when we have increased community transmission, which is going to happen in certain communities.”

She also said B.C. would not deny someone education because of their immunization status.

gluymes@postmedia.com

twitter.com/glendaluymes

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