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Words pictured on a bulletin board at Hastings Elementary school in Vancouver on Sept. 2, 2020.JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

B.C.’s new Education Minister is reassuring teachers that the province is in the midst of ramping up its contact-tracing efforts to fix major delays in notifying those who may have been exposed to the novel coronavirus at school.

Jennifer Whiteside, who left her job as the chief spokesperson and negotiator for the Hospital Employees’ Union to get elected in the New Westminster riding in the October provincial election, said in a phone interview Thursday that she knows parents and teachers are using social media to alert each other to possible classroom exposures days before being notified by backed-up public-health teams.

But the Education Minister said it is essential to trust the system and she added that 900 of the 1,200 new contact tracers recently funded by the province are now working in the field, as the virus spreads in schools at rates that mirror the surrounding communities.

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“There is a rigorous process that our public-health officials engage in around contact tracing when a case has been identified and it’s important that that system be allowed to work,” she told The Globe and Mail.

Last week, The Globe reported B.C.’s contact-tracing system to the south and east of Vancouver is on the precipice after case numbers began ramping up sharply in November. Before the start of the school year, the expectation was that these investigators would track every single confirmed case, working rapidly to retrace the infected patient’s whereabouts, and then contact anyone who could have been exposed to the virus to ensure that they would not, in turn, spread COVID-19 to others.

Teachers say they are losing trust in the system as their local health authority routinely takes up to two weeks – the period an infected person is contagious – to give them official word they may have been exposed at school.

Ms. Whiteside said she is particularly mindful of the anxiety faced by instructors working in the densely populated Fraser Health region, which includes Surrey, the city that is currently the epicentre of COVID-19 transmission on Canada’s West Coast.

“I can appreciate that, particularly in Fraser Health, the situation is very tough for people on the ground given the amount of community transmission,” she said.

Still, she said she will not mandate all students older than 10 years mask up whilst in class, a core demand from the union representing some 45,000 public school teachers across the province.

“That is a call that is the responsibility of the provincial health officer,” Ms. Whiteside said.

Teri Mooring, president of the BC Teachers’ Federation (BCTF), said Ms. Whiteside could certainly order all older students to mask up inside classes, just as her predecessor made masks mandatory earlier this year while students and staff are in common areas such as hallways and buses.

“That is an example of the ministry deciding to go above and beyond the precautions recommended by the Provincial Health Officer, so it has been done,” Ms. Mooring said, referring to the current rules enacted by Ms. Whiteside’s predecessor.

Ms. Mooring said more than a thousand letters have been sent out to parents notifying them of a potential COVID-19 exposure at their children’s school, but she doesn’t know how many teachers at B.C.’s nearly 1,600 public schools are isolating at home after testing positive. The province has those data – contact tracers ask every one they speak to if they work in health care or the education system – but will not release them publicly, Ms. Mooring said.

“The actual number would bring comfort to people,” Ms. Mooring said.

For now, the union is trying to address its concerns through a new “troubleshooting” process at the Labour Relations Board to resolve concerns about cleaning protocols, masks and physical distancing in schools.

Matt Westphal, who represents Surrey teachers for the BCTF, said the situation is getting dire in his city, noting a virtual meeting of teachers at one high school this week was told three classes there were currently isolating after potential exposures and 28 of the school’s 80 educators were absent on Monday.

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