British Columbia

1 month in, B.C.'s return-to-school plan spurs relief — and anxiety

B.C. schools not immune to COVID-19 outbreaks, infectious disease modeller says. More than 100 exposure events inside B.C. schools.

B.C. schools not immune to COVID-19 outbreaks, infectious disease modeller says

Since school reopened in September, there have been at least 100 exposure events, but B.C.'s provincial health officer says transmission with the school setting is still rare. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Laura Kine spent the summer nervously anticipating sending her kids back to school. But over the last month, many of her previous fears have been alleviated.

"It seems to be not absolute chaos," said the mother of four. "The children seem happy to be back at school. They seem to be engaged and learning, and it seems to be moving along pretty normally."

Normalcy that's not without reminders that time's have changed. When Kine's daughter developed a minor cough, she kept her home from school and had her tested for COVID-19. Kine says tests came back negative.

And there's always the lingering concern that other students might bring the virus into the classroom, especially after the province made changes to its student health checklist last month, she said.

"Your siblings are allowed to go to school, even when you're home sick or you're being tested, so it seems like there's a bit of a gap in the isolation process," said Kine. "We're trying to navigate all of the changing recommendations and rules. They don't seem 100 per cent effective."

An empty classroom is pictured at Eric Hamber Secondary school in Vancouver, B.C. Monday, March 23, 2020, during spring break. After spring break, schools remained closed before temporarily reopening in June on a part time, voluntary basis. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

Many parents are still grappling with a barrage of health concerns as they send their kids back to school. In B.C., 400 children 10 years old and younger have tested positive for the virus — up from 178 in the first week of September. There have been more than 100 exposure events inside B.C. schools, but health officials say there haven't been any outbreaks.

School transmissions

"We have seen a number of exposure events where we have not seen — in almost all of them — we've not seen transmission within the school setting," said Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry at her Thursday briefing. "That tells us that the risk in the school setting is still quite low, and it is a reflection of what's happening in our community."

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry provides her daily COVID-19 update on Thursday. (Mike McArthur/CBC)

Still, infectious disease experts say classrooms aren't immune to transmission, and B.C.'s definition of outbreak might differ from other jurisdictions in Canada.

For example, schools in Quebec, Ontario and Manitoba have reported outbreaks when several children inside schools tested positive for the virus. In B.C., as many as 18 positive cases were associated with a cluster in a Grade 2 class at West Vancouver's Caulfeild Elementary, but the event was not declared an outbreak, only a COVID-19 exposure.

"It's a little bit unclear where we stand in B.C. on recognizing transmission in schools, on reporting it compared to the other provinces," said Caroline Colijn, an infectious disease modeller and research chair at Simon Fraser University. "I hope it's not just a matter of time until we see large outbreaks here."

Over half a million children, teachers, educators and support workers, went back to class in B.C. in September in the midst of a global pandemic. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Lack of transparency

Under provincial guidelines, the health authority does not specify how many individuals tested positive and which cohorts were affected. Henry has previously said an outbreak occurs when there is transmission between people in a school and "additional measures have to take place."

Colijn says she suspects there may be a lack of transparency when it comes to just how widespread transmission is in B.C. schools, largely due to privacy concerns.

"The public is well served by transparency in a number of ways, the public deserves to know what's going on — but also, we need to maintain trust in public health," she said.

"Data transparency makes that trust very robust, and allows it to continue — even if we don't like the news we're seeing," she added.

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