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COVID-19 concerns mount as B.C. students return to class after winter break

Last Updated Jan 5, 2021 at 7:12 am PDT

(Lasia Kretzel, NEWS1130 photo)

Parents who fear people didn't adhere to public health guidelines over holidays concerned about return to school

B.C. mom who tracks COVID-19 numbers in schools says a number of exposure notices were sent out over the December break

Local parent continues to call for more transparency around COVID-19 exposures at B.C. schools

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – Some parents in B.C. are once again calling out the Ministry of Education and Ministry of Health, saying a lack of transparency about COVID-19 school exposures makes them extra nervous about this week’s return to classes.

Many have been wondering how the behaviour of others over the break might impact the spread of the coronaivrus in classrooms across the province. They say the arrival of the virus’ variant adds to their stresses.

“There are people who didn’t follow the [public health] order and I think that’s where the big fear and concern comes in about starting school,” says Kathy Marliss, who’s spent the last several months tracking the virus in B.C.’s education system through the BC School Covid Tracker page.

“I didn’t receive any messages of anyone admitting to not following the public health order or feeling that they made a mistake by doing so. What I did hear, though, were dozens and dozens of messages of people telling us that they know of other people who were feeling quite comfortable to gather with family to travel.”

Marliss was hoping for a break over the holidays but admits that wasn’t the case, saying she was busy sifting through exposure notices up until this past weekend.

She explains exposure notices kept rolling in from schools and districts for the first week of winter break but by the second week, she says the BCCDC was posting notices that weren’t being communicated by school or districts.

“I guess there was a backlog in contact tracing and reporting,” she says. “So there was a flood of new exposure notices being listed there.”

She says a lot of parents were shocked to learn through her database that an exposure happened the last week of school and that they had no idea.

“In Surrey’s South Meridian several parents reached out to me saying that due to an exposure at their school, it resulted in, at least, 10 or so people catching the virus,” says Marliss.

“So, you know, the ramifications of that exposure were still being felt and it was still happening over the break.”

‘Knowledge is power’

Reporters asked Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry about the return to classes during Monday’s update. She says the province reports all exposure events and maintains most of them are not linked to transmission events.

“We often don’t know about them until several days later,” says Henry. “And sometimes parents, others, are speculating, or they put out information that may not be known to the rest of the school community, so there’s that challenge in understanding what information is being put out.”

Marliss says she feel Henry continues to avoid answering why there are holes in the data, why multiple exposure events are communicated in a single letter, and why parents continue to contact Marliss with known exposures and transmissions that remain unreported by the BCCDC and schools.

“And what people want is transparency and once we know that they can have that transparency then I think people will feel a lot more at ease. Knowledge is power,” she says, adding we can do a better job of working together to keep one another safe through shared knowledge.

She and others continue to call for a mask mandate within B.C.’s schools, adding urgency to such a push amid the arrival of the new variant of the virus in recent weeks.

Marliss’ Facebook group has grown in popularity in recent months. She says she only posts about transmissions or exposures she can confirm with official sources, and that makes her worry that even her list does not offer a true image of how the virus is moving in schools.

She’s also excited to have two experts examining her data and comparing it to that of the province.

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HsingChi von Bergmann, a health science education researcher and professor at UBC, and Jens von Bergmann, who holds undergraduate degrees in Physics and Computer Sciences and a PhD in Mathematics, used the BC School COVID Tracker database to compare to the public database.

Jens is criticizing the province for relying on recommendations over “robust public health orders” and points to provinces like Manitoba and Ontario which have delayed the return to schools.

“For families with immune-compromised or otherwise vulnerable household members this means parents have to decide whether to send children back to school on January 4th, without the benefit of better gauging the effect of the holidays. And without even knowing the case counts for the three previous days,” he writes.

Tens of thousands of concerns parents had signed a petition calling on the province to extend the winter holiday. However, most classes are resuming as planned this week.