The New Westminster Teachers’ Union is encouraging students and staff to wear masks and get vaccinated to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
On Aug. 24, the province outlined its plans for the new school year, which requires all staff, adults and students in Grade 4 to 12 to wear masks in indoor areas of the school (including at their desks) and strongly encourages students in kindergarten to Grade 3 to wear masks.
NWTU president Sarah Wethered told the Record the union believes students in Kindergarten to Grade 3 should have been included in the province’s mask mandate. She noted children in an age group are currently unable to be vaccinated.
“I was very disappointed that they didn’t extend the masking requirement for K to 3. We have been pushing for that; the BCTF has been pushing for that since the very beginning,” she said. “I feel that the Grade 4 to 12 teachers have some protection, and then if you teach children who are 12 to 18, then they have the protection knowing their students can get vaccinated.”
Wethered encourages parents to get their children to wear masks at school, even if they’re not required to do so under the provincial mandate.
“I am concerned about the primary teachers. Children are getting the Delta variant. Children can be carriers of that Delta variant, and young children are getting the virus now. I am concerned about that,” she said. “I would really like parents to realize this, and send this kids to school with a mask and that their kids know how to wear a mask.”
As part of the back-to-school plan, masks will be required for staff, adults and Grade 4 to 12 students. Exemptions, however, remain in place for students or staff who cannot wear masks or for times when masks may temporarily need to be removed, such as when people are consuming food and drink, actively engaging in an activity that requires temporary removal of the mask (like when they’re playing a wind instrument) and communicating with or providing a service to a person with diverse needs who may depend on visual cues or facial expressions.
Dr. Bonnie Henry, B.C.’s provincial health officer, said she’s encouraged to see rising vaccination rates in most parts of the province.
“We need every eligible British Columbian, including children and youth aged 12 to 19, to receive vaccinations as they begin the new school year,” she said in a news release.
“Send your kid to school with a mask and get them vaccinated, and know school is not going to be exactly normal like it was two years ago, but we are trying to get there,” she told the Record. “To get to the new normal, it has to be a collective effort to get that vaccination rate higher and the transmission lower, and to follow public health guidelines.”
Superintendent Karim Hachlaf said the health and safety of students will be the New Westminster School district’s top priority when classes resume on Sept. 7.
“As we have throughout this pandemic, we will continue to take our lead from the health authorities, knowing the situation will continue to ebb and flow. And we’re well aware that students, staff and families will each be starting September with a wide range of concerns and hopes, as we’re each navigating and living different realities,” he wrote in an Aug. 22 letter to parents, caregivers and staff. “But with today’s confirmation of a more typical return to school than we saw last year, I’m excited about the additional opportunity for learning, for supporting social-emotional needs and for growth that this new school year opens for all of us.”
Extracurricular activities return
The province’s return-to-school plan also allows for the resumption of sports, music and other extracurricular activities.
"We know how excited students and families are about being back in school with extracurricular and sports programs and how important it is for children to be connected to their teachers and friends on a full-time basis,” said Education Minister and New Westminster MLA Jennifer Whiteside in a news release. “We also know we can do this safely, even as the pandemic continues to present challenges."
Wethered said it will be nice to know concerts or dance performances may once again be allowed.
“It will be a little bit of normalcy back,” she said. “There is still going to be the cleaning protocols and you are still going to have to wear a mask and you are going to have to try to physically distance from people, but I am trying to be really optimistic about the new school year.”
Wethered said the decision on whether to volunteer for extracurricular activities would be up to teachers.
“If I was at NWSS I would probably try to have my clubs again, but that’s my choice. So we will have to see what teachers decide. I know that the kids want to play sports again and see their friends. We will see what September looks like,” she said. “Hopefully teachers know that they have that choice to make. Teachers have that choice – if they want to and feel comfortable, yes they can go on and provide those wonderful opportunities for kids. But if they say, ‘it’s a little too risky and I am not comfortable’, know that they are supported by their administration, by the school district and their union. And hopefully the parents will understand as well.”
As was the case in the previous school year, the school district requires students, staff and visitors to do daily health checks and to stay at home if they’re sick. Enhanced cleaning protocols and an increased focus on hand and respiratory hygiene will continue will remain in place at New West schools.
According to the Ministry of Education, the province is spending $87.5 million to improve school ventilation in B.C. schools.
“Thanks to the newer construction of many of our New Westminster schools, in collaboration with proactive years of upgrades to others, we are meeting or exceeding the recommended standards wherever possible,” Hachlaf said in his letter to parents. “All filters – at every school and site – were replaced over the summer and will be replaced on a regular schedule throughout the year. We are also working with our facilities team to ensure that we continue to run our ventilation at full capacity, as we maximize the circulation of clean air at each school.”
Along with CUPE Local 409 president Dave Bollen, Wethered said she’s pushing for the permanent return of full-time day custodians at all schools.
“CUPE and the NWTU, we are united in that – we want to see the reinstatement of full-time day custodians,” she said. “If the pandemic has shown anything it’s that a cleaner building is a safer building.”