Parents on B.C.’s Malcolm Island say most children kept home from school over teacher’s mask exemption

Parents on Malcolm Island, B.C., say they kept their young children from attending their first day of school Wednesday after learning one of the school’s two teachers would be exempt from wearing a mask in class. 

“We feel this is a necessary step,” said Brittany Swanson, who is a parent of three children at A.J. Elliot Elementary in Sointula — a community of around 600 people just north of Port McNeill on Vancouver Island— and also the current president of the school’s Parent Advisory Council. 

“We are not comfortable with an unmasked teacher in contact all day long with our children who are not old enough to be eligible to be vaccinated,” Swanson told CBC, noting that she learned from an online group chat with other parents that around 28 of the school’s 34 children were held back Wednesday. 

The CBC has reached out to School District 85 but has not heard back.

The Ministry of Education said in a statement that a Vancouver Island Rapid Response Team has reached out to the district and is “reviewing local safety plans to ensure safeguards are in place to support a healthy learning environment … as well as to help communicate with parents.”

Parents say concerns being brushed aside

Currently, the province’s safety measures for the 2021/22 school year require all staff and students in grades 4 to 12 to wear a mask indoors, except those “who cannot tolerate wearing a mask for health or behavioural reasons” or are unable to use a mask without help from another person, among some other exceptions.

The province confirmed there is no mandate for teachers, staff and eligible students to be vaccinated against COVID-19 in order to return to the classroom.

Swanson said parents learned school officials would not be asking the staff member for proof of a medical exemption, and that parents would not be notified on whether the staff member is vaccinated, due to privacy legislation.

She recalled that many parents learned of the mask exemption last Friday when the district called them to a sudden Zoom meeting for the following evening, which included board representatives and the North Island’s medical health officer.

Swanson said parents were dissatisfied when officials refused to discuss their concerns about the mask exemption, and instead focused on “educating us about COVID [precautions].”

She said most parents convened in an online discussion afterward to discuss their concerns and came to the consensus that they were not comfortable sending their children to school after it seemed their concerns were being brushed aside.

Parents send list of demands to school district, Ministry of Education

Karen Reid, another parent, told CBC the school’s principal was as helpful as she could be to parents, but there’s only so much she can do. 

Many parents have sent a collective letter to the school district and the B.C. Ministry of Education calling on them to ensure “a safe and secure learning environment” for children and other staff members.

The letter also requests that teachers and staff who cannot wear masks be relocated to where they can work in isolation from the rest of the school community, and calls for the ministry to provide emergency funds for safe in-school learning alternatives for students.

“None of us want this,” said Reid. “My kid … is finally excited about school and now this is happening.”

Reid said most parents don’t want to resort to home-schooling, but she envisions a number of them will de-register their child if a solution isn’t found quickly.

She noted a few parents are concerned about the mask exemption but cannot afford for their children to stay home, due to their full-time jobs.