On Oct. 4, masks became a requirement for B.C. school students in Kindergarten to Grade 12, for both in-class instruction and when on school buses. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson)

On Oct. 4, masks became a requirement for B.C. school students in Kindergarten to Grade 12, for both in-class instruction and when on school buses. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson)

North Okanagan-Shuswap teachers taking flak over school mask requirements

Union president encourages parents to take concerns up with school district, province

Face masks can’t hide the dismay of some North Okanagan-Shuswap educators caught between provincial masking requirements at schools and parents who are opposed to them.

On Oct. 1, B.C. Health Officer Bonnie Henry announced the provincial health order regarding the use of masks inside schools was being extended to cover all staff, and students from Kindergarten to Grade 12.

Henry explained the expansion of the mask requirement for B.C. schools, which began on Oct. 4, was prompted by a rise in COVID-19 cases among school-aged children, and was intended to provide an “additional layer” to help reduce transmissions in classrooms and schools.

Despite the intent, North Okanagan Shuswap Teachers Association president Graham Gomme says there are parents in School District 83 opposed to the order who have opted to vent their own frustrations on teachers.

“We’ve had a few schools where there have been a lot of tension, a lot of anger directed towards teachers following school district and provincial government orders,” said Gomme. “They really should take the fight up, if they feel they need to, with the government, with the school district, and not put it on the teachers.”

Gomme was aware of two primary school teachers exhausted from being intimidated by some parents, to the point where they feel they need to go on leave.

“That’s really unfortunate because they shouldn’t have to use their valuable sick days or medical days for this kind of thing,” said Gomme.

The Observer requested an interview with school district administration. While none was provided before press time, the school district did send an email with information from the Ministry of Education stating all students from K to 12 are required to wear a mask indoors in schools and on school buses, and advising school staff to “utilize positive and inclusive approaches to engage students in the use of masks, and should not employ measures that are punitive or stigmatizing in nature.”

Read more: B.C. parents, teachers, unions call on school districts to announce mask mandates

Read more: B.C. teachers call for K–12 mask mandate and ‘cautious approach’ to start of school year

Read more: Face masks for teachers can impact learning on young children, experts say

“I sort of get offended by the insinuation that we would stigmatize a child,” said Gomme, stressing educators are trained to care for every child in their classroom.

Gomme noted a situation at one school where kids who are not wearing their masks in the school will still put them on when visiting a nearby store during their break.

“We cannot investigate whether it’s a medical exemption or not, we’re just told we have to accept it if their parents say they have an exemption,” said Gomme. “And the actual order in my opinion says, if you have a legitimate exemption, which there are, then alternative measures have to be provided, and those aren’t being followed through enough in my opinion.”

According to the B.C. Office of the Human Rights Commissioner (BCHRC), you don’t have to wear a mask if you’re under age 5; you are unable to wear a mask due to a health condition or physical or mental impairment; you are unable to remove a mask without help from another person; or wearing a mask prevents you from communicating with someone with a hearing impairment. If a person claims they have a valid reason to not wear a mask, the BCHRC states they must be taken at their word; proof should not be required.

Gomme is encouraged by the vaccination rates in the province. As of Oct. 20, 74.2 per cent of all British Columbians had been double vaccinated (83.3 per cent of people age 12 and up).

“Doctors and experts are saying we still need to follow through with these COVID-19 protocols in order to get through this,” said Gomme. “If we do them in combination (with vaccination), we’ll probably get out of this. But if we ignore it… we’ll still be at this for a while longer. It’s just frustrating.”

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