British Columbia

B.C. teachers want data on COVID-19 in schools made available to all as classes resume amid 4th wave

The B.C. Teachers' Federation is calling for exposure data in schools to be publicly available on the B.C. Centre for Disease Control website, rather than to only those directly affected.

Dr. Bonnie Henry has said exposure notices created anxiety for parents

Students arrive at Chaffey-Burke Elementary in Burnaby, B.C., for the first day of the school year on Sept. 7. The union representing B.C. teachers is raising concerns that parents and educators will no longer be receiving notices about COVID-19 exposure in schools. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

As thousands of children head back into B.C. classrooms Tuesday, the head of the B.C. Teachers' Federation says parents and educators are anxious they will no longer receive notices about COVID-19 exposure in schools — even as the number of overall cases in the province is expected to rise this fall.

Teri Mooring says previous notices weren't perfect because they didn't state how many cases were circulating in a particular school, but at least they provided some indication about what was happening.

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has said the notices created anxiety for parents, but Mooring says that's insulting because having no information only causes more stress.

Mooring says notices will only be issued to those who are directly affected, but others would also now be concerned about potential exposure to the highly transmissible delta variant, which has become the most dominant strain of the coronavirus since the last school year.

She is calling for exposure data in schools to be publicly available on the B.C. Centre for Disease Control website, in the same way that case counts in all health regions are reported.

Henry recently presented modelling data showing new COVID-19 cases could exceed 1,000 a day by the end of the month and that high vaccination rates in the community would protect students.

Masks are required for staff and students in grades 4-12, but vaccines are not required for teachers, staff and eligible students to return to the classroom. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

In the weeks leading up to the first day of school, B.C. teachers were also calling on the province to improve ventilation systems in school buildings.

In August, the Ministry of Education said in a statement that HVAC systems at more than 400 schools have been upgraded in the last four years, and that in 2020 alone, districts used $10 million in federal pandemic-specific funding to upgrade more than 45,000 air or ventilation filters in B.C. schools.

Mark Walsh, secretary-treasurer for Nanaimo-Ladysmith School District 68, said the provincial government has been working with the district for over a decade to improve the ventilation systems in area schools and that COVID-19 did help speed up that process.

With the help of grant money to improve school safety during the pandemic, Walsh said summer was spent making sure schools in the district had the highest level of filtration possible.

"We are going to be providing the most safe environment we can while taking our marching orders from our local health authorities that we are working with," said Walsh, speaking to CBC's On The Island host Gregor Craigie hours before classes got underway.

In the weeks leading up to the first day of school, B.C. teachers were calling on the province to improve ventilation systems in school buildings and to mandate masks in the classroom. Classes began Sept. 7 with a mask mandate in place for only students in Grade 4 or higher. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Walsh said the price tag to upgrade the filters in district school buildings was about $100,000 and while this was covered by the government, there is some concern about covering increased utility bills now that the upgraded systems are operational.

Mooring has said the provincial process to improve ventilation has been "very slow" and that the province does not have any centralized information about school ventilation systems and therefore has to connect with each district individually, which is adding to that lag time.

While ventilation upgrades and costs are high on the BCTF's list of worries, another chief concern for the union is the lack of a mask mandate for kindergarten to Grade 3.

Officials have confirmed staff and students in Grade 4 and up will be required to wear a mask in indoor spaces, but this has not eased all fears.

"It doesn't make sense that we're going to exclude some of the children that can't be vaccinated," said Mooring. 

Speaking Tuesday morning on CBC's The Early Edition, the president of the B.C. School Trustees Association said the situation is not as dire as it was last year, because now vaccines are freely available.

"The level of concern this year entering into the school year is significantly lower than last year," said Stephanie Higginson.

She added that the province is working now to outfit more schools with better ventilation systems and that hand hygiene and daily health checks will continue to reduce risk to staff and students.

Stephanie Higginson speaks with Stephen Quinn about students and teachers returning to school another year marked by the pandemic. 9:27

With files from The Early Edition and On The Island


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