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Surrey teachers continue push for more COVID safety measures in schools

Last Updated May 12, 2021 at 3:06 pm PDT

Personal protection equipment is seen on the teacher's desk in classroom in preparation for the new school year at the Willingdon Elementary School in Montreal, on Wednesday, August 26, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

Fraser Health documents show high percentage of Surrey schools with COVID clusters or outbreaks

Surrey School Association president says though only a few weeks of school are left, changes can still be made

SURREY (NEWS 1130) – With only a few weeks left in the school year, teachers in the B.C. city hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic are still demanding “urgent” safety improvements.

Surrey Teachers Association President Matt Westphal says recently leaked Fraser Health documents confirm dozens more cases have been recorded in that district.

“School transmission is happening,” he insisted. “The narrative we’ve been hearing from Dr. Henry and public health all year is that school transmission is minimal or we don’t have to take additional measures. However, what this document shows is that there is school transmission happening — student to student, student to staff, staff to student, staff to staff.”

According to the leaked Fraser Health’s data, Surrey was the only school district within that health authority where more than 20 per cent of schools had a confirmed COVID-19 cluster or outbreak between Jan 1. and Mar. 7, 2021.

A portion of a Fraser Health document on school-related COVID-19 transmission.

Last month, Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry, referring to B.C. schools overall, said schools are not driving community transmission.

“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 said.

Westphal believes the figures in the Fraser Health documents don’t give a full picture of how much transmission is happening within schools.

“I think these numbers are actually conservative because the way they define a ‘suspect in-school acquisition,’ the case has no known exposure to a household or community case. So, for example, if you have two students who sit side by side all day and they also play on the soccer team, they can’t exclude community transmission,” he said.

In the document, “Suspect in-school acquisition/transmission” is defined as a when a person “attended school during the acquisition period” and if that person had “no known exposure to a household or community case with symptom onset two or more days earlier.”

That is the base criteria that must be met before that person is considered for evaluation of a “possible in-school acquisition/transmission event” or “likely in-school acquisition/transmission.”

A portion of a Fraser Health document on school-related COVID-19 transmission.

Westphal says many exposure notices in recent weeks involved younger children in classrooms where masks are not mandatory, and argues it’s not too late to make a change in policy.

“Younger children are not exempt from getting the virus or transmitting it. We see no good reason not to do it. Children at that age are capable of wearing them. I know Kindergarten teachers who say almost all their students do,” he said.

The union is also seeking reduced class sizes, better ventilation in schools, and more remote learning options as measures to help mitigate risk of exposure to the virus.