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Opinion: Back to school

editorial sept 9
Despite most people following health rules, back-to-school learning and fun in Whistler and B.C. is still restricted by the pandemic.

The first leaves of autumn are falling, and with the transition of the seasons comes a tradition all of us are familiar with—going back to school.

Most of us were hopeful at this time last year that the sacrifices we were making then would mean life by now would be pretty well back to normal.

But, in fact, case counts of COVID-19 are high, as are the number of people seriously ill with the virus in ICUs, and already a school-based exposure event has been shared after a staff meeting in Vancouver. 

We are in the fourth wave of the pandemic—the wave of the unvaccinated.

Last school year elementary and high schools worked with masking, learning cohorts, quarter systems, and hybrid or remote learning, while post-secondary institutions mostly conducted all their classes online. 

This year, universities and other post secondary institutions, as well as grade schools, are back in class—no cohorts and class schedules back to pre-pandemic form for the most part.

(Honestly, what was the point of the cohort any way, as kids saw each other in the halls, at breaks and outside of school?)

Playgrounds are considered a safe environment and music classes can resume, but with masks for singing this year. School meal programs, assemblies and extracurricular activities are back, but with no inter-school competitions or tournaments. All students and staff will be expected to give themselves a health check every day.

The mask mandate is fully in place with all students (except K to Grade 3 kids) and staff in any school setting masked while in an education facility, at their desk and on buses.

While there is no doubt the order handed down by B.C.’s Public Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry last month was unwelcome by many students who miss the experience of going unmasked among friends, the move is welcomed by most, according to a recent poll by Angus Reid.

Many surveyed also support mandatory vaccines in the education setting, with 74 per cent of respondents with a child aged 12 to 17, and 81 per cent with a child aged five to 11, saying vaccines should be mandatory for teachers and other school staff.

British Columbia lead the way, with 69 per cent of parents wanting to see both mandatory vaccines and masks for any adult entering a school.

In grade schools it is not mandatory for teachers to be vaccinated, though their own union said it would not oppose such a move. At UBC, for example, students must prove they are fully vaccinated to return to in-class learning or submit to regular testing. It’s up to post secondary institutions as the employer to decide if its staff must be vaccinated.

This swampy situation caused one UBC prof to joke on Twitter that perhaps he’d move his classes to a bar, since vaccinations are mandatory in that setting. 

It seems ridiculous to me that you have to prove you are fully vaccinated to eat out but not to be in an indoor education setting. At a post-secondary level you could have more than 200 students in a classroom for up to two hours—how does that make sense without mandatory vaccines for everyone involved?  

Henry also announced recently that COVID-19 notifications would not be issued to schools for single exposure incidents, though she said healthcare workers would still do an assessment, as is done for every communicable disease, and every individual who is at risk will be notified. Clusters and/or outbreaks will still be reported and six rapid response teams are in place to respond to COVID-19 exposures in schools.

The province is also investing $77.5 million to upgrade or replace school HVAC systems through this school year, and Whistler’s systems have been upgraded to MERV-13 filters.

We had all hoped for a school year where our kids could enjoy their learning, their friends—be able to gather to recreate and socialize, where it was about fun as well as education.

Sadly, we are not there yet.

Please, if you are not vaccinated yet, go and get your shots. It’s the only way we can have any sense of normalcy in our lives going forward.