There’s disagreement about whether students should continue to wear masks when they return to classes after spring break.
“There’s parents who are concerned — some say it’s a 50-50 split,” said Angela Angela Carmichael, president of the Victoria Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils. “It’s pretty divided, unfortunately.”
Dr. Bonnie Henry, provincial health officer, mostly dropped a mask mandate last week, only leaving it in place in schools until spring break and in health-care settings.
The scrapping of the mask orders in indoor public places comes at a time when vaccination amongst people age 12 and older in the province is more than 90 per cent but boosters are less impressive at 56 per cent and vaccination in children age 5 to 11 is lower still with just 55 per cent vaccinated with one dose as of last week.
Meanwhile, epidemiologists such as Sally Otto, a member of B.C.’s independent COVID-19 modelling group and a professor at UBC, are watching the Omicron BA.2 variant — around 50 per cent of cases in mid March — as the BA.1 Omicron wave transitions to a BA.2 wave. The new variant is holding steady, she said.
“I don’t think we’re at the point where we need to sound the alarm strongly because of this really strong immunity that we have,” said Otto. “I would say this is a ‘let’s keep monitoring situation.’ ”
Carmichael said her children — age eight and 13 at an elementary and a high school respectively — will keep their masks on even when no longer required given the risks of increased transmission as students return from travel abroad. “We know kids are super spreaders of any kinds of germs,” said Carmichael. “Personally I wouldn’t have removed the mask mandate for schools — not quite yet.”
Dave Eberwein, superintendent of the Saanich School District, said students in the district will return from holidays April 4.
“I know that Dr. Henry and her team have worked diligently to ensure that schools and other community areas continue to remain as safe as possible, while still providing people with a sense of normalcy in relation to the level of risk,” said Eberwein.
If the risk level changes, Eberwein said he expects the provincial health officer will be responsive to that.
“Certainly the wearing of masks is optional after spring break for staff and students and in our communication home to parents, we have talked about that optional approach,” he said. “Personal choice will be respected for both students and staff in return after the two-week spring break.”
Michael MacEwan, Saanich Teachers’ Association president, said he finds teachers split on wearing of masks. “Some are happy that it appears we are moving back toward a pre-COVID sort of normality and others are very concerned that we’re removing some protections before we really have complete answers.” Despite masks not being required after spring break, he would personally like to see them recommended.
Ravi Parmar, chairman of the Sooke School Board, said some B.C. districts have started their spring break this week, allowing other districts with later spring breaks to observe what does or doesn’t happen as students return to those schools.
Parmar said he will still wear his mask in public places and around groups of people.
“One thing I think that has not changed and will not change anytime moving forward is the fact that we all need to look out for one another,” said Parmar.
“The days of feeling sick and toughing it out and still going to school and work, that is now the past,” said Parmar. “So if families are traveling and they come back and they’re not feeling well, they should not come to school and they should be mindful of the people around them.”
Otto said the good news around Omicron variants is that the BA.2 Omicron variant established late in B.C. so that people here have built up an immunity to “pretty interchangeable” Omicron subtypes. The risk is that the number of BA.2 cases is not falling and is “holding steady” meaning it is not under control, she said.
At the same time pandemic restrictions across the country are being lifted, said Otto.
“Everything that we do to relax [restrictions] will increase the growth rate of this virus but whether or not it creates a major new spike or not that’s what’s really hard to tell,” said Otto.
To improve ventilation in schools, the province said Tuesday it is providing $48 million in 2022-23 to upgrade HVAC systems at 90 schools around B.C., including Deep Cove Elementary in Saanich and Spencer Middle School in Sooke. Since the start of the pandemic, the ministry has provided $163.1 million in provincial and federal funding for HVAC upgrades.