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B.C. provides data on COVID-19 in schools, union criticizes delay, gaps

Last Updated Apr 15, 2021 at 8:53 pm PDT

FILE: A physical distancing sign is seen during a media tour of Hastings Elementary school in Vancouver on September 2, 2020. Students across British Columbia are getting ready for COVID-19 orientation sessions this week amid a flurry of new protocols aimed at reopening schools while the pandemic wears on. Education Minister Rob Fleming has said districts are expecting 85 to 90 per cent of students to attend school in person, but some parents and students say they're frustrated by the lack of remote learning options, large class sizes and inconsistent messaging when it comes to physical distancing. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

Schools are not driving community transmission, and do not need to be closed to stop the spread: Dr. Bonnie Henry

B.C. health officials presented studies of cases in Lower Mainland schools, say in-school transmission is very low

The BCTF says the data is a good start, but it is not timely enough to be useful

VICTORIA (NEWS 1130) — B.C. health officials provided long-awaited data showing COVID-19 transmission in schools is low, but the head of the teachers’ union says more protective measures and a region-specific approach are needed to keep students and staff safe.

Dr. Bonnie Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix presented an in-depth review of school cases in the Vancouver Coastal Health and Fraser Health regions Thursday

“These data are from the detailed case investigations and contact tracing and outbreak and cluster investigations that are done for every exposure event in schools,” Henry explains.

Overall, they say schools are not driving community transmission, and do not need to be closed to stop the spread.

“Most of the cases in the school setting were acquired outside of the school, and there was little transmission within the school itself. So it does not appear to be a major driver of community transmission,” Henry says.

“I know there’s a lot of talk that we need to close schools to stop transmission in the community, and we’re not seeing that as an issue. We recognize how important school is for families for communities and for children. It certainly is something we continue to pay attention to and we know how distressing it is when we have exposure events, and we need to all continue to pay attention to what keeps things safe in the school setting. ”

The Vancouver Coastal Health study spanned Sept. 10 to December 18. During that period, 699 cases were identified among students and staff in that region, with 55 linked to in-school transmission.

“That is reassuring to us about 8 per cent of these cases were acquired whilst in school. And typically when a transmission did occur in a school, on average, that led to one, or at most two additional cases in the school.

With a population of 124,000 students and staff, less than one per cent of people in schools contracted the virus.

“This tells us, importantly, that despite what was happening in the community that schools are relatively low transmission environment, and that the measures that are in place in Vancouver Coastal schools during that period of time were effective in preventing widespread transmission in the school setting,” Henry says.

Modelling - Schools - April 2021

Teachers’ union wants more timely data

Teri Mooring, President of the BC Teachers’ Federation, says she’s relieved to see more information being shared about cases in schools, but that the information from Vancouver Coastal Health is too out of date to be particularly useful.

“It’s good to see some data, and it’s really unfortunate that it took so many months of pushing to get some. I’m not sure how helpful three-and-a-half-month-old data is in terms of Vancouver Coastal health because the world has changed so much since then with the variants,” she says.

“The data changes so rapidly — with the variants especially — that there’s a need for current and consistently updated data. They’re able to do it in other jurisdictions. My hope is that we’re going to get more timely data because I’m not sure this is going to put people at ease. Families are saying that they don’t have enough information about what’s happening in the schools to make informed decisions about their children’s safety.”

With record-high case counts and hospitalizations in April, Mooring says neither of the studies presented Thursday accurately reflect the current reality.

The study of Fraser Health spanned Jan. 1 to March 7. In that time, there were 2,049 cases identified in schools, and of those 267 were a result of in-school transmission — a rate of about 13 per cent.

Henry says the higher rate of infection reflects what was happening in the community, repeating something she has said many times before when asked about school cases.

“We know that in that period of time we had very high rates of transmission in some communities in particular, in Surrey, and North Delta and Abbotsford,” Henry says, adding transmission within schools themselves the rate of transmission was low.

“Typically when a case was identified a transmission happened in the school is was to one other person in that school.”

Further, no transmission was identified in 85 per cent of schools in the region.

Mooring would like to see data for other health authorities, noting high case counts and community spread in places like Prince Rupert, and Fort. St. John.

Data highlights need for school, region-specific measures: BCTF 

While Mooring agrees keeping schools open is a priority, she says the fact that a small number of schools are driving transmission show that in Fraser Health and other ‘hot spots,” which means a one-size-fits-all approach won’t be effective.

“The data shows that a regional approach is absolutely necessary, and so obviously we’re still pushing for that,” she says.

“In those hotspots, we need to be looking at hybrid models, we need to be looking at online learning — not for a whole district perhaps but in some schools that are very hard hit — especially in those communities where we know there’s a great deal of community transmission.”

RELATED: Frustrated Surrey teachers demand more remote learning as pandemic case numbers spike

Henry acknowledges that exposure notices, and the requirement of classes to self-isolate are both “disruptive and concerning,” adding that is one reason why school staff are being prioritized for the vaccine.

Mooring says her members are relieved, and she understands that the hardest-hit schools and regions have to be prioritized.

“We’re hoping, obviously, that all teachers and support staff get vaccinated as soon as humanly possible. But when you don’t have enough supply absolutely doing the hotspots is what needs to happen, we absolutely support that,” she says.

“We know that teachers have already started receiving the notifications about getting their immunizations. I haven’t seen any kind of hesitancy on the part of teachers for being vaccinated whatsoever. I know that there are some people that are going to wait for the age-based program and that’s perfectly fine. But people are very eager to get their vaccines and we’re grateful that some vaccine has been allocated for that purpose.”