Wearing masks will again be a required practice for students returning to school in the Central Okanagan School District on Sept. 7.
The announcement was formally revealed by Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside on Tuesday, but planning for that step by Central Okanagan Public Schools administrative staff was already underway for that eventuality.
Kevin Kaardal, superintendent/CEO for Central Okanagan Public Schools, sits on the K-12 provincial advisory committee that advised Whiteside on the impact of various potential public health measures for schools this fall.
“It seems a bit like normal after what we went through last year, but we have a fourth wave here in the Central Okanagan and we have to respond to that,” Kaardal said.
“‘So it doesn’t come as a surprise.”
When classes ended for summer in June, the expectation was students being confined to class cohorts would end while extra-curricular activities would return, and the ministry of education would revisit the mask policy before school returning.
Kaardal said the cohort measure has been dropped because the feeling was it was the least effective measure at controlling the transmission of COVID-19 in schools since students still mingle together outside of class time during lunch and after school, in particular at the middle and senior high school levels.
He said extra-curricular activities will be phased in, starting with practices being allowed but inter-school games or other events will be delayed at the outset of the 2021-22 school year.
“We will take a wait and see approach towards mid-fall and see where we go from there. But we all understand the importance of extra-curricular activities to help support the growth and development of our youth,” he said.
Describing the difference between this coming September and a year ago, Kaardal said the school district is somewhere in the middle between returning to fully normal and adapting strict pandemic safety standards.
He said the biggest game-changer remains access to vaccines, both for school teachers and support staff, as well as students 12 and older.
“Last year, we did not have access to vaccines until June and we still got through the year without any serious virus transmission issues in our schools,” he said.
For K-3 students, Kaardal said secondary health measures will be in place to counter those students not yet having access to an improved vaccine, such as wearing masks, washing hands and spacing out desks in the classroom.
While the province stopped short of mandating vaccines for school staff and students, Kaardal says vaccination rates in the Okanagan remain in line with provincial averages of around 80 per cent for first doses and 70 per cent for two doses.
Kaardal reiterated that the pandemic impact in local schools reflects what is happening in the community, noting a Lower Mainland school study found 92 per cent of students with positive cases of COVID last school year were exposed to the virus outside of schools.
“Vaccines remain the most powerful tool we have by far. They are very effective and that is what the data is telling us,” he said.
Kaardal added the school district is also ready to assist parents who have been evacuated from their homes due to wildfires on the west side of Okanagan Lake.
“If parents need support for registration of their kids or any other concerns, reach out to us and we can help with those kinds of things…We are here to offer support and to help.”