School District #83 is preparing to reopen under the B.C. Ministry of Education’s back to school plan. (File photo)

North Okanagan-Shuswap schools to compel mask use through kindness

Non-compliance may result in loss of in-class instruction, bus use

Students will play an important role in keeping their school a healthy place to learn and part of that includes wearing masks when and where required.

The B.C. Ministry of Education recently released its back to school plan for school districts, which includes health and safety guidelines aimed at reducing the risk of COVID-19 transmission. Within the guidelines are recommendations for physical distancing, riding the school bus, hand hygiene and mask use. Regarding the latter, non-medical masks or face coverings are required for staff and students in Grades 6 through 12 in high-traffic areas where physical distancing cannot be maintained and the person may interact with people outside of their cohort, as well as when riding a school bus.

Students have the choice to wear a mask in the classroom (within their designated cohort group). Elementary students are not required to wear one.

Exceptions will be made for students who cannot wear masks for medical reasons.

School District #83 Superintendent Peter Jory explained that the health and safety measures prescribed by the province depend on buy-in by everyone within the school system, including students.

“School is important to everybody and it’s important we do everything we can to improve safety and to reduce anxiety so people will come to school,” said Jory. “That’s the first message and getting people to buy into that is incredibly important for us to be able to function…”

Jory reiterated that when students are in their own classrooms, within their cohort group or bubble, there should be no reason to wear a mask.

“And if we can schedule our transition times, our breaks, our lunches, to be staggered or take place in different zones in the building, then it’s going to really limit the amount of time that a student needs to wear a mask and that will help us a great deal,” said Jory.

Another strategy to encourage mask use by students is to have a variety available. Jory said the school district has completed its initial round of purchasing of masks for student use, but that they want to take that a step further to provide a selection so students can choose something that works for them.

“Everybody is a little different, the fit is a little different, the preferences are a little different,” said Jory. “If we have more choice for our adults and our students, I think this is going to go a lot better as a result.”

Jory said the intention is to avoid unnecessary power struggles with kids, even in cases where students are, for whatever reason, not wearing masks when required.

“We want to encourage them to come to school, we want school to be a safe place, so we’re going to try to enforce this through kindness and soft pressure and convince kids through these other means that this is a good idea and is in everybody’s best interest,” said Jory. “At the end of the day, though, if we have issues with non-compliance, we’ll have to respond to that, and that may mean losing the privilege of being in class or school and, of course, on the bus… wearing them is necessary to ride.”

Read more: Back to school plans released for North Okanagan-Shuswap

Read more: Feds roll out $2 billion to fund return-to-school safety amid pandemic

“If a student in Grade 6 to 12 won’t wear a mask on the bus, they’re going to lose their ride privileges right away, and we have to go there unfortunately.”

Asked about two cases of COVID-19 detected at a Montreal school that put about 20 teachers into quarantine, Jory said if that were to happen at a school in the North Okanagan-Shuswap, Interior Health would step in and provide direction.

“It might mean closing down a building if it means a transmission has gone across cohorts,” said Jory. “But that decision will be in Interior Health’s hands should that occur.

“I’m hoping that all the strategies that we have in place, the extra cleaning, the zones, the hand washing, all of our good practices around physical distancing and so on will limit any kind of transmission should individual cases occur. But we have to be ready for any of these possibilities.”

Jory noted the return to in-class instruction (Stage 2 in the province’s restart plan) is dependent on a very low level of COVID-19 transmission in communities.

“Even with all the measures in place, it really does depend on a low case count,” said Jory.

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