British Columbia

Parents pull kids from school to protest B.C.'s COVID-19 plan, despite low rates of in-class transmission

A group of B.C. parents is pulling their kids from school for the day on Tuesday to protest the province's back-to-school plan, despite the provincial health officer pointing to low rates of COVID-19 transmission in schools.

Protest group says it wants better safety measures for teachers

A group of students walk down the sidewalk near a school in Vancouver on Nov. 10, 2020. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

A group of B.C. parents is pulling their kids from school for the day on Tuesday to protest the province's back-to-school plan, despite the provincial health officer pointing to low rates of COVID-19 transmission in schools.

Parents behind the "BC Student Sick Out" campaign, which has more than 2,500 members on Facebook, say they want classes capped at 15 students, more online learning options and masks mandated in schools. 

Co-organizer Tara Kurtz, whose two kids are students in the Langley School District, said the event is in support of teachers who don't have the same protection as in other workplaces.

"Dr. Bonnie Henry likes to push the Swiss cheese model," Kurtz said.

That model entails physical distancing, wearing masks, washing hands, minimizing interaction and making spaces safe. 

"But the only layer of protection being given to schools is to wash your hands. And then we're hearing about districts that are short on funds now for paper towels, for soap."

A callout posted on the group's Facebook page, asking parents to keep their kids home. (BC Student Sick Out/Facebook)

In a statement, the B.C. Ministry of Education said it has earmarked $290 million to buy cleaning supplies, personal protective equipment and hire more staff where needed. 

Schools have also segmented students and teachers into learning groups to reduce interaction (60 people for elementary and middle schools and 120 for secondary schools).

Middle and secondary school students must wear masks in busy areas, such as hallways and school buses, but aren't required to wear them in class.

Many exposures, little transmission

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry reiterated Monday there has been very little transmission in schools.

"We've had many exposure events, but they have very rarely resulted in transmission, particularly from children to anyone," she said.

A school exposure is when a single person is confirmed positive for COVID-19 and has been in the school during their infectious period. An outbreak in a school setting is when there is ongoing transmission, and public health officials are not clear on the source of the transmission.

There have been many exposure events but only a few outbreaks in schools so far.

When asked about the protest, Henry said, "I think the parent voices are very important to ensure that's what happening in their school community meets the needs of parents and children."

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has repeatedly said she will not mandate masks in school classrooms. (Mike McArthur/CBC)

Parents, however, have denounced the province's lack of transparency around cases and school exposures. Some have launched a Facebook page to track exposures in B.C. schools, with more than 1,000 exposures recorded to date.

Stephen Hoption Cann, an epidemiologist at the University of British Columbia, said it's normal for parents to be concerned, but cautioned against misinformation on social media. 

"Government sources are a source of information that's accurate and kept up to date," he said. 

"If you're depending on social media for your information, there is the possibility of giving inaccurate or slanted information, which may not be helpful."

It's not clear how many students were pulled from class Tuesday. Several dozen parents on the Facebook page reported keeping their kids at home. 

Jennifer Beaton, a mother of four school-aged kids in the Langley School District, said she chose not to take part. She disagrees with a mask mandate in schools and says wearing them is difficult for two of her kids, who have autism. 

"They have to wear it outside their cohort, and to me, that makes more sense than having to wear it all the time," she said. 

However, Kurtz, the protest co-organizer, said parents simply want safety measures bolstered in schools for teachers.

"They went to school to become educators," she said. "They did not sign up to put their lives on the line in a pandemic."

With files from Eva Uguen-Csenge


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