The BC Ministry of Education and Provincial Health Officials announced a number of new restrictions have been implemented in schools across the province.

All middle school and secondary students, as well as K-12 staff, are now required to wear non-medical masks in all indoor areas even when they’re in their learning groups.

Students are only exempt from this rule when they are at their seat or workstation in a classroom, there is a barrier in place or when they are eating or drinking.

For elementary students, wearing masks indoors is still a personal choice.

Some changes have also been made to guidelines surrounding physical education, as high-intensity physical activities are to be held outside as often as possible.

Additionally, shared equipment such as weight machines, treadmills or musical instruments, can be used only if they are cleaned to the school sanitization guidelines between each use.

In music class, students using equipment or playing instruments need to also be spaced at least two metres apart and masks are to be used when singing.

The Ministry of Education is now allocating $101.1 million to school districts and $7.5 million to independent schools.

There will also be an additional $3.5 million allocated to manage COVID-19 exposure in schools and $8.2 million will go towards Indigenous learners.

All funding allocated for Indigenous learners will go towards addressing learning loss and student health, technology for remote learning, education and mental health support, adapting classroom spaces and enhanced cleaning.

There will also be $900,000 allocated for six regional rapid response teams, one for each health authority and one dedicated to support independent schools, with representatives from both school and provincial health staff.

Rapid response teams will conduct site inspections to ensure health and safety guidelines are being followed consistently and will be deployed to conduct a review and make recommendations if needed.

These teams will be announced by Dr.Bonnie Henry and will work to improve the speed of school exposure investigations, so health authorities can inform school districts and families more quickly.

BC Teachers Federation (BCTF) President Teri Mooring says the changes made will make schools safer, however, more can be done to protect everyone in school communities.

“The changes do not include improvements to school density, ventilation, or the ongoing inadequacy of contact tracing,” Mooring added, “we need the government, school districts, and health authorities to step up and make improvements in those areas as well.”

The BCTF announced there are still concerns that the mask mandate doesn’t apply to elementary students and is concerned about the lack of action in reducing classroom density.

Mooring adds the learning group cohort model has not changed even though it has proven to be a weak safety measure and shared concerns about the absence of clear directives to improve ventilation as well as the inaction on improving the contact tracing system.

“Overall, BC teachers will be relieved to see the government and health officials finally move on key safety measures like a stronger mask mandate and the potential to improve access to much-needed layers of protection like barriers,” said Mooring. “BC teachers have been pushing for critical improvements to the health and safety guidelines in our schools since they were first implemented in September.”