GUEST POST BY CRYSTAL MUNDY
University of B.C. PhD candidate
In the year since the pandemic was declared, I, like many others with autoimmune disorders, have been isolated in a home shared with my husband and two sons, ages 16 and four.
I am still homeschooling, working from home at the university and on research publications, exercising in my backyard, and ordering groceries online. My husband has a job deemed essential; he’s a mechanic. When cases were high over Christmas break, we slept in separate rooms for weeks.
Imagine my surprise – as a parent, scientist, and educator – to learn that Nanaimo school district 68 trustees voted, in March 2021, not to implement mandatory masks in a group of elementary school students within British Columbia. Despite what we all have been told about the benefits of masks in reducing transmission when distancing is not possible (like many BC schools), they are not mandated within schools.
Children do not have to wear them while sitting at their desks in secondary and middle schools; masks are not required in elementary schools. From the BCCDC website: “Elementary school students are not required to wear masks and it remains a family decision.”
Given that children spend most of their day at their desks, this policy is clearly insufficient and troubling. A review of masking guidelines in nine other provinces indicated that every school was required to have students wearing masks, in some provinces from K – 12, some from 1 – 12 and some from 4 – 12. There are many more masks on students in all other provinces than there are here in BC.
School trustees are fully within their fiduciary rights and their duty of care, to go beyond the provincial orders. Dr. Bonnie Henry has stated their ability to do so more than once, during press conferences. However, the apparent ability to do so is compromised by decisions taken – or not – by the School Trustees. These trustees now state they are for the vaccination of teachers while denying preventative measures like masks.
Given the research support for the use of masks to reduce COVID-19 transmission, it remains unclear why those tasked to protect children and ensure equity among districts would not engage in obvious steps to mitigate risks to children and their families in our school communities. More concerning, when Dr. Henry was asked by a radio reporter to answer yes or no to whether schools could mandate masks above and beyond the provincial order, she did not say yes or no. Her answer did not preclude that the schools will be expected to confirm provincial orders if they go above and beyond, as we have seen when a Port Moody school was forced to retract their mask mandate.
Further, when asked on March 22nd, 2021, whether teachers were being prioritized due to being at high risk of infection, Dr. Henry stated: “So, it is very similar to why we are prioritizing police services, fire services, our emergency medical services, not because they are at high risk. But because they have an important function in society that can be severely disrupted if we start to get clusters and people have to be self-isolating.”
This is in spite of evidence showing that elementary teachers (where masks are not mandated) have successfully filed three times as many WorkSafeBC complaints as secondary teachers (where masks are partially mandated, but not at a desk).
In a recorded, and publicly available, video of the proceedings of a Town Hall meeting, Dr. Sandra Allison, Medical Health Officer for Island Health Authority, states grade 6 and 7 students wearing masks when other schools and students do not have to, may compromise student mental health and wellness. She further states that masks could be seen as a punishment. These statements are incorrect, and without substance, in my opinion. Where is the proof that masks compromise mental health and wellness? In countries around the world, children wear masks for long periods during influenza season.
Dr. David Fisman, a noted Canadian epidemiologist, has stated: “I think probably the most important thing I could say from Toronto is… masks in little kids in schools have not been a big deal at all. They were very contentious, and a lot of public health units did not want to do them. In the end, we have all wound up masked. It has undoubtedly helped keep schools safer and it has been a non-issue. The kids do not even notice them, and I think the little boys love wearing masks with fangs.”
Even more concerning, Dr. Allison has stated that asymptomatic spread is less than one per cent. This is not reflective of current research showing 25-50% could be asymptomatic spread and reflects clear and present irresponsibility with regards to our COVID-19 communications. We have seen an increasing number of letters related to school exposures since Christmas break, and it remains unclear what the true transmission is within the school setting due to symptomatic-driven testing.
Dr. Henry has repeatedly stated that child-related COVID-19 infections reflect their proportion of the population and the level of COVID in communities. However, in recent weeks, cases of COVID-19 among children have been increasing at a faster rate than adults. Adults have been generally increasing at a rate of 4% based on recent situation reports, but children have been increasing at a rate of 6 – 8%. Given that transmissibility of variants is higher, and that aerosol spread occurs, it is unclear why masks are still not mandated within schools while students are sitting at desks most of the day.
As the variants of concern rise in our communities, open data and communication by public health is a necessity. Citizen-driven initiatives, including my own at BC Covid Updates, (https://bccovidupdate.com/) have arisen to try and fill the knowledge gaps not filled by public health. Due to the increasing concern of the UK variant overtaking many of our cases and thereby increasing transmission rates, it is no longer logical to stick to the same game plan. As the variants take over, we could see an increasing number of infections and transmissions in children. This has been recently reported within Canada, including Ontario. On March 16th, 2021, Ontario reported 1074 new cases, of which 367 (34%) are in school populations (301 students + 66 staff). And these are cases in public schools only? That means that over a third of cases in Ontario are now school-children.
There is no reason whatsoever not to expect the same outcome within British Columbia.
More cases of COVID among children translates into more children who could experience MIS-C and long-COVID-19 within British Columbia. And it poses increased risks to family members and entire school communities.
I implore the Boards of Education across British Columbia to heed the science to protect children within school settings, using evidence-based policies that are proven to reduce transmissions in other jurisdictions. Remember that prior to the arrival of the variants, the Surrey district sent out more than 2,000 COVID-19 exposure notifications this school year.
I hope we do not see an exponential increase in those notices following Spring Break due to insufficient policies that Boards of Education could have implemented.
Crystal Mundy is a PhD candidate in Clinical Psychology at the University of B.C. in Kelowna. Her primary area of study is clinical forensic psychology, and she recently defended her Ph.D. dissertation and is now awaiting her final residency and licensing.