UPDATE: The New Westminster school board is now revisiting the issue at a special board meeting on Friday, Oct. 1. Read more here.
The New Westminster school board won’t be implementing a mask mandate for students in kindergarten through Grade 3 – and that decision has left some parents feeling frustrated.
Trustees voted Tuesday night (Sept. 28) not to impose an extended mask mandate in School District 40. The decision came after a request from the district parent advisory council (DPAC), which had urged the board to go beyond the provincial guidelines that require masks for grades 4 to 12. Masks for kindergarten to Grade 3 students remain "encouraged."
“The parents of New Westminster are asking you to go above and beyond,” DPAC chair Kathleen Carlsen said, reminding board members that the Vancouver school board just voted Monday night to implement an extended mask mandate in its schools. “We’d like to see New Westminster be the leaders. We weren’t first, but we’d like to be next.”
Trustee Danielle Connelly initially brought a motion to the table proposing that the district extend the mask mandate to K-3, as requested.
But trustee Dee Beattie instead proposed that school board members write a letter to the minister of education, provincial health officer and Fraser Health indicating its support for a provincial review of a mask mandate for K-3 students.
Trustee Anita Ansari agreed with the change, arguing the school board shouldn’t undermine the work of the provincial health officer.
“Expanding the mask mandate beyond what is recommended absolutely undermines the PHO’s position,” she said.
Trustee Gurveen Dhaliwal echoed those sentiments, suggesting the board shouldn’t go ahead with a mask mandate of its own – especially without a legal opinion or conversations with the local medical health officer.
“The fact remains, we are not experts in health policy or epidemiology,” she said.
In the end, Beattie's proposal was carried unanimously.
The vote didn’t sit well with parents who turned out to the meeting in support of a mask mandate.
“The parents of this district do not feel that’s enough. We’re quite disappointed that’s all you’re doing, but on the other hand, we’re happy you’re doing something to support us,” Carlsen told trustees after the vote.
She pointed out that, last year, the New Westminster school district chose to implement some measures that went “above and beyond” provincial requirements, such as extra cleaning in schools and cohorts that were smaller than the maximums allowed. Those measures, she said, weren’t seen as “undermining” the provincial health office – and neither, she argued, should a mask mandate.
“The idea of mandatory masking for K-3 is not about undermining the PHO, it’s about providing a safe space for children to learn,” she said. “We are deeply disappointed that you did not go above and beyond.”
Parent Anne Whitmore told the board their decision to write a letter of support amounted to “tokenism.”
“We were looking for your courage and your action,” she said, citing rising case numbers in children aged five to 11 around B.C. “Families in this district are not asking you to undermine the guidelines of the PHO. We have asked you to raise the bar, and again this board has failed us.”
Parent Evan Sklarski said he was “very disappointed” by the decision.
“I have written letters to everybody,” he said. “I don’t want another letter; I want precautions in place to protect the students. …
“I would rather not wait until there are outbreaks to do simple, non-invasive things as opposed to waiting for entire schools to close down because there are outbreaks.”