The Georgia Straight
School mask mess emphasizes lack of leadership
Mixed messages, poor communication the norm as province continues to gaslight teachers and critics
What a fustercluck. For a moment or two on March 29, it seemed that B.C.’s increasingly beleaguered provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, was coming around to what her colleagues across the country, and the U.S. Centres for Disease Control, have acknowledged for months: masks are a key layer of protection in K-12 schools.
I watched that media briefing she did with Premier John Horgan and Health Minister Adrian Dix where she appeared to choke on her words before saying, “We’re going to be updating our public health guidance to support mask-wearing for all students down to Grade 4, across the province.”
Wait, did she just say “support”? Weren’t we doing that already?
Outside B.C., it’s widely accepted that students from Grade 4 and up should wear masks at school, except for when eating or drinking, and younger kids should be encouraged to wear them as well. Exceptions can and should be made for those who have difficulty wearing masks.
It was a disaster of a media briefing when Horgan blamed people in their twenties and thirties for the climbing COVID-19 case counts and alienated a generation of voters who have been working frontline jobs in healthcare, retail, firefighting, policing, and all those other essential services while often sharing homes with multiple roommates because of B.C.’s high housing costs.
Heck, a lot of them have young kids who go to mask-optional schools in a province that doesn’t like to test kids without COVID-19 symptoms, while we know kids are often asymptomatic and can spread the virus.
Never mind that Horgan has been ignoring pleas to make schools safer for months while WorkSafeBC quietly approved teachers’ and education assistants’ claims for catching COVID-19 at work, or that he refuses to require those coming from out of province to quarantine on arriving in B.C. Horgan is also the genius who let ski resorts stay open through spring break, with entirely predictable results. Sure, blame the young folks and not your own lack of effective leadership, Mr. Premier.
Alas, the hopeful bit of mask news— which implied that B.C. might finally catch up to other jurisdictions and require students in Grade 4 and up to wear masks, something teachers and many parents have been pleading for since the start of the school year—seemed to be not quite that, unfortunately.
Or did it?
It seemed not on March 29, when B.C.’s deputy minister of education, Scott MacDonald, sent a bulletin to school superintendents and school principals saying public health guidance was being amended to only “support and encourage” grades four to 12 students to wear masks at school.
Yet the B.C. Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) insisted it had been told, in no uncertain terms, that masks would be required for Grade 4 and up, and they were not going to accept another bait-andswitch like the one last July, when government changed the back-to-school plan at the 11th hour, and without informing the teachers’ union before making a public announcement.
I emailed the Ministry of Education on Tuesday morning (March 30) to ask for clarification on what the new mask rules for schools were, and it took 12 hours to get an answer that should have been simple and quick, given the new health orders went into effect at midnight on March 29.
Then I heard Henry on CBC radio’s Early Edition show on March 30 say she was revising “guidance that includes maskwearing down to Grade 4” and that it was not an order, just guidance.
The rest of that day was communications chaos, with school staff meetings scheduled and cancelled as everyone tried to figure out if masks would be required, recommended, supported, encouraged, or included. It was as clear as mud.
It took until just after 9 p.m. to get confirmation by email from Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside’s staff that masks would, indeed, be required for students Grade 4 and up, even while seated in class, with exceptions for those who have difficulty wearing masks, although the B.C. Centres for Disease Control site was updated to say “should”, not “required”, causing even more confusion. Good grief.
It was a master class in how not to communicate during a public health crisis, and it left school districts scrambling to figure out if “guidance” was different from “mandate” or “order”, and, honestly, how much are we paying these “leaders” to screw up something so simple?
This school mask fiasco has been mindboggling. I know a lot of folks are tired of the term gaslighting, but that’s exactly what government and health officials are doing to those who have been raising the alarm about airborne-virus transmission and calling for stronger school safety measures. Instead of acknowledging the concern and the science, they’ve dismissed it with virtual pats on the head and assurance that schools are magical places where viruses don’t transmit like they do in other workplaces, homes, or restaurants.
Government and public health officials backed themselves into a corner on the issue by insisting schools were safe, with almost no viral transmission, yet they won’t release data to prove that. Clearly, WorkSafeBC acknowledges education workers are catching it at work or they wouldn’t be approving their claims.
If there truly has been little to no transmission, why support masks now? That’s the uncomfortable corner Henry and company have wedged themselves into, which may explain why she choked on her words March 29.
If it hadn’t been for Fraser Health president Dr. Victoria Lee having had enough of the mealy-mouthed provincial “guidance” last weekend and breaking ranks by going it alone and issuing a mask order for Surrey schools, I doubt we would have finally gotten movement on the B.C.-wide school mask mandate at all.
Sure, health officials have been learning as they go, and they know a lot more about the COVID-19 virus now than they did a year ago. Yet for some reason, almost every other province’s health officials and governments knew it made sense for kids from Grade 4 and up to wear masks at school. Henry refused to follow suit despite thousands of COVID-19 “exposures” in schools and more contagious variants of concern rampaging through communities.
I don’t know any other employee group that’s had to plead so hard for better safety measures. Lots of people face risks: healthcare workers, first responders, and those who work in grocery stores and other frontline jobs. As far as I can tell, they get as much in terms of safety measures as is possible while still doing their jobs, but people who work in schools are told it’s safe to spend hours a day indoors in crowded classrooms, where masks were optional until recently.
[Dr. Bonnie] Henry refused to follow suit despite thousands of COVID-19 “exposures” in schools… – Patti Bacchus