British Columbia

Parents pull kids from Prince George, B.C., school, as classroom teachers wait for COVID-19 test results

Parents are pulling their children from a Prince George, B.C., elementary school after learning multiple teachers and staff members are waiting for COVID-19 test results and have experienced symptoms of the virus.

District Teachers' Association wants more contact tracing in schools to alleviate fears, as case counts climb

Classrooms at Heather Park Elementary in Prince George, B.C., were quiet this week as many parents pulled their kids out of school a week early over COVID-19 fears. (Sofia Rodriguez/CBC)

Parents are pulling their children from a Prince George, B.C., elementary school after learning multiple teachers and staff members are waiting for COVID-19 test results as case counts in the region rise.

"Teachers were letting parents know they were experiencing symptoms and wouldn't be at school," said parent Tara Latkowski. "I just didn't think it was worth the risk leading up to Christmas."

While the school district says the number of teacher absences is "not atypical" for cold and flu season, multiple parents told CBC they decided to keep their kids home from Heather Park Elementary after the school issued three COVID-19 exposure warnings in less than two weeks.

On top of that, at least three teachers were away from the school Monday, and multiple parents said they were told as many as 20 staff members were absent. That's about one third of the school's overall staff, according to the district's public directory. 

It is not clear how many of those absences are due to COVID or COVID-like symptoms, but at least one teacher has tested positive while two others have informed parents they are experiencing symptoms and self-isolating.

Deputy superintendent Cindy Heitman would not confirm the number of absences, though she did acknowledge multiple substitutes had to be called in. However, she said the numbers were "typical to what's been seen in previous years" and assured parents health protocols are being followed in all classrooms.

Teachers stressed as contact tracing falls behind

But Prince George District Teacher's Association president Joanne Hapke said teachers are stressed as positive case counts in the region rise.

"We always put our students first [but] I'm telling teachers that it's now time to put yourself first," she said. "If, [as] you drive to work, you cry the whole way there, you are not well. And I have reports of this."

Hapke said the lag time between exposures and notifications is a major source of worry for those working in classrooms.

For instance, teachers and parents weren't notified of a possible Dec. 3 exposure at Heather Park until Dec. 15 — 12 days after the fact. Northern Health has publicly stated it's fallen behind on contact tracing due to a surge of cases in the region.

"Our system has broken down," Hapke said.

Northern Health spokesperson Eryn Collins said while there is a backlog, schools remain a priority for contact tracers. She also said while those who test positive are free to share that information, "we don't want people to be self-isolating or fearful, when they're not actually at higher risk."

Collins said only close contacts need to self-isolate, defined as people who live with someone who tests positive for COVID-19, or those who are likely to have been exposed to respiratory droplets while the person was contagious — which would mean they were not physically distancing nor wearing a mask while speaking, coughing or sneezing.

However, the Prince George District Teachers' Association wants close contacts to be redefined to include teachers and students and has issued a letter to Dr. Bonnie Henry asking teachers be notified whenever one of their students tests positive, regardless of whether health officials deem them to be at risk or not. 

"We know that we are intermingling with children all the time," Hapke said.

The letter also calls for mandatory masks and reduced class sizes to improve distancing. Meanwhile, Hapke urged everyone to follow public health guidelines over the winter break to reduce cases before classes resume.

"We want our schools to remain open but we want our schools to be safe for the teachers and children who are entering them," she said.

COVID-19 cases at Prince George schools have staff and students staying home out of fear. We talk to the head of the P-G teachers association to find out more. 9:49

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Andrew Kurjata

CBC Prince George | @akurjata

Andrew Kurjata is an award-winning journalist covering Northern British Columbia for CBC Radio and cbc.ca, situated in unceded Lheidli T'enneh territory in Prince George. You can email him at andrew.kurjata@cbc.ca.

With files from Betsy Trumpener

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