Enhanced safety measures and the plans for the second installment of the previously announced federal funding were outlined by Minister of Education Jennifer Whiteside and Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry on Thursday, to continue to strengthen health and safety plans in K-12 schools to help keep students, teachers and staff safe during the pandemic.
School District No. 83 Superintendent of Schools Peter Jory comments that SD83 will now be updating safety plans and practices to meet the new requirements. He said some of the just announced measures will be in place immediately, while some will take a little more time to implement. “These changes have come about as a result of the learning that has taken place over the last six months, and will build on our current safety measures and make them stronger,” he added.
The announcements include stronger requirements for mask wearing for middle, and secondary students as well as staff, strengthened guidelines for physical education and music classes, a rapid response team in each health authority to help if there is a significant exposure/outbreak at a school, updated safety plans to be implemented at each school, and a health-checker app to support daily screening.
The new safety guidelines include that all middle and secondary students and K-12 staff will now be required to wear non-medical masks in all indoor areas, including when they are with their learning groups. The only exceptions are when:
• sitting or standing at their seat or workstation in a classroom;
• there is a barrier in place; or
• they are eating or drinking.
Prior to these changes, masks were required for middle and secondary students and all K-12 staff in high-traffic areas, like hallways, school buses, and outside of classrooms or learning groups when they could not safely distance from others.
For elementary students, wearing masks indoors remains a personal choice. These updates are part of ongoing work of the provincial education steering committee and are in alignment with provincial health updates. Updated guidelines for the child care sector will be made available in the coming week.
Guidelines have also been strengthened for physical education and music classes. High intensity physical activities are to be held outside as much as possible. Shared equipment or items, such as weight machines, treadmills or musical instruments, can be used only if they are cleaned between use, compliant with strict school sanitization guidelines. Students using equipment or playing instruments should also be spaced at least two metres apart and masks are to be used when singing.
Strengthened health and safety guidelines also include these updates:
- Activities that include prolonged physical contact should not be a part of physical education or any other classroom learning. For example, activities like tag or touch football are lower risk, since students may only come into contact with each other briefly, whereas activities like wrestling or partner dancing should be avoided.
- All K-12 staff are required to wear a non-medical mask or face covering when they are in a classroom and they are away from their individual desk or workstation.
- Staff should be assigned to one learning group whenever possible. Staff interacting without a transparent barrier and with more than one learning group, or with students in more than one school, are to practice physical distancing.
- Staff must practice physical distancing and wear non-medical masks for any face-to-face meetings or interactions, including in the staff room. Staff also must hold meetings virtually whenever possible.
- Any visitor to a school is required to wear a non-medical mask.
- Even when wearing a mask, students and staff must still practice physical distancing whenever possible. Exceptions will be made for people who do not tolerate masks for behavioural or health reasons.
- Within learning groups, physical distancing should also include avoiding physical contact and minimizing close, prolonged, face-to-face interactions, while spreading out as much as possible within the space available. There should be no crowding, gathering or congregating of people, even when non-medical masks are worn.
Whiteside also announced the second installment of the federal funding arrived on Jan. 29, 2021. School districts will be able to spend their portion of the funding in the following areas, based on local needs:
- hiring teachers to deliver education programs, including extended transition programs;
- hiring and training custodial and administrative staff to support students in their safe return to schools and to implement school safety plans;
- purchasing additional non-medical masks or other personal protective equipment
- improving ventilation and air systems in schools;
- increasing hand hygiene, including additional handwashing and hand-sanitizing stations;
- cleaning equipment and supplies;
- mental health support;
- software and computer or tablet loans for students learning remotely; and
- additional transportation costs to accommodate additional routes and enhanced cleaning.
There will also be funds allocated for six regional rapid response teams, one for each health authority and one dedicated to support independent schools, with representatives from both school and provincial health staff. These teams, announced by the provincial health officer, will continue to improve the speed of school exposure investigations, so health authorities can inform school districts and families more quickly. Rapid response teams will conduct physical or virtual site inspections to ensure K-12 COVID-19 health and safety guidelines are being followed consistently. If there has been a significant exposure event or an in-school transmission, rapid response teams will be deployed to conduct a review and make recommendations, if needed.
School principals and vice-principals at each public and independent school are being provided with updated COVID-19 health and safety checklists to ensure they consistently follow provincial guidelines. Additionally, families in their local communities are reminded of the personal measures they can take to help keep schools safe. School districts and independent school authorities will be required to confirm every school has completed the checklist and safety plans have been updated to reflect the updated guidelines by Feb. 26, 2021. All schools will also post updated plans on their websites.
One of the most important factors to keeping schools safe is a daily screening for any COVID-19 symptoms, which is why daily health checks continue to be required. To support daily screening, a new K-12 health-checker app has been developed for students and their families and can be found at: https://www.k12dailycheck.gov.bc.ca The app will allow people to answer simple questions every day. It will inform them if they can attend school or if they need to self-isolate and contact 811 to be screened for COVID-19.
The BC Centre for Disease Control has a new website with information and resources about health and safety measures in K-12 schools, student and staff safety, and what happens when there is a COVID-19 case in school: www.bccdc.ca/schools
Families and students can find up-to-date information about K-12 schools at: https://www.gov.bc.ca/safeschools
The B.C. K-12 daily check app can be found at the following addresses: