SURREY (NEWS 1130) – There are worries about COVID-19 variants in schools south of the Fraser River with seven exposures now linked to the B.1.1.7 variant of the virus at seven schools in Surrey and Delta, as teachers push for districts to be given more power to deal with cases on a school-by-school basis.
“I’m feeling very concerned for my members and all the people working at the schools, along with the kids, for how they will go to school safely,” says Mat Westphal, president of the Surrey Teachers’ Association. “I wonder how many parents will feel safe sending their children to school.”
Westphal would like to see more decisive action from the province to allow stricter rules at a local level in classrooms.
“I’m really worried about the approach that has been taken so far in that they are waiting to see how bad it will get before taking measures. If they take more aggressive measures now, maybe we can prevent these variants from spreading as much as they have the potential to do,” he says.
He believes school districts should be given more flexibility.
“For example, in Surrey, there are 17 schools that have never had a single exposure, whereas there are others who have had very heavy exposure. So maybe even within a school district, we could have different rules to try to maximize the safety where it’s needed.”
The ability to impose even stricter mask mandates than those currently in place tops the list for Westphal, echoing comments from the BC Teachers’ Federation.
“Districts need to be able to make that call around mandatory masking, even in elementary schools,” says BCTF president Teri Mooring. “They should also be able to reduce classroom density so that physical distancing can happen.”
Mooring says that elementary teachers, in particular, are concerned about these exposures, and the union would like to see children over the age of nine wearing masks.
“Some of these schools where this variant has been detected are elementary schools where there are very few preventative measures in place,” she says.
Mooring is also advocating for even more rapid testing in schools.
However, Westphal says he has spoken extensively with Surrey school trustees and the superintendent who say their hands are tied.
“They cannot go in excess of the provincial health orders. They can’t set a higher requirement for masks than what has been set by [Provincial Health Officer] Dr. [Bonnie] Henry, even though some private schools have been able to do that, which is a question we are pursuing,” he says.
“It’s a top-down thing. If they have the freedom to adopt different rules, someone needs to tell them that because they do not believe that they do.”
Westphal took part in a meeting Sunday where the Surrey district updated parents on the COVID-19 situation at Woodward Hill Elementary, one of the schools with a confirmed case of the UK variant.
“People are feeling very worried and some are feeling very angry, asking why we aren’t doing more rapid testing at the school. While we only have a few weeks left until spring break, they’re asking why we don’t move students to remote learning for that time while we sort out what’s going on and how bad this is. They’re angry that Fraser Health is not taking those steps and that the school district feels it needs Fraser Health to tell them to go ahead and do those things.”
According to the BC School COVID Tracker Facebook page, there are seven confirmed exposures to “variants of concern” as of Monday morning, all in the Fraser Health region.
In Surrey, there is one exposure listed at Tamanawis Secondary, and one each at Woodward Hill Elementary, Surrey Traditional Elementary, James Ardiel Elementary, AHP Matthew Elementary, and the independent Gobind Sarvar School.
In Delta, a variant has been confirmed in an exposure at Hellings Elementary.
-with files from Lisa Steacy and Liza Yuzda