As the Omicron variant spreads too fast for authorities to track, British Columbia will no longer alert parents when their children may have been exposed to COVID-19 in classrooms, the province’s Education Minister said Friday.
Instead, decisions on whether to declare an outbreak will be made based on attendance at a school. If daily attendance dips dramatically below what is typical for a school, parents and the local health authority will be alerted. A public-health team could then be deployed to use rapid tests to get a better understanding of the school’s infections. If there are too many infections, the school could close and its students could be required to learn online.
“What we understand in the current situation that we’re in with Omicron is that having access to information about individual test-positive cases is not going to be possible,” Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside said at a briefing. “So we need a proxy to understand what’s happening in schools.”
That proxy is attendance, she said.
Students in British Columbia and Alberta return to their classrooms on Monday, a week after their scheduled start date. Administrators and teachers spent this week preparing to continue in-class instruction at a time when the Omicron variant of COVID-19 is leading to case counts higher than any previously seen in the two years since the pandemic began.
On Friday, B.C. reported 3,144 new cases over the past 24 hours, though Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry believes the daily community transmission is actually several times higher. There are 349 people hospitalized with the virus across the province, 93 of whom are in intensive care.
Schools in Quebec and Ontario have moved their classes temporarily online in an effort to curb spread of the virus. Ontario Premier Doug Ford has pledged that when teachers and students are able to return they will be given N95 masks.
Mr. Ford was heavily criticized by parents last week when Ontario’s government announced that it, like B.C., would no longer be notifying them of classroom exposures.
Terri Mooring, president of the B.C. Teachers Federation, which represents 45,000 public school educators across the province, said notifications about COVID-19 cases in schools have always been incomplete. Previously, decisions about when to notify parents were left up to local health authorities. Teachers have often complained those notifications were vague and slow. Ms. Mooring said the provincial government should instead empower individual schools to take on the sharing of information.
“We are concerned that this is going to be based on attendance only, and what that means is that there’s going to be a situation where students get ill and staff get ill before anything is triggered.”
Dr. Henry said Friday that the point at which in-person teaching is shut down and students are moved online will vary depending on the school. She said an absentee rate of about 10 per cent above normal could trigger a school closing. Ms. Whiteside said some school districts might be able to tolerate higher rates.
B.C. teachers have been demanding access to N95 masks for weeks. Ms. Mooring said they are frustrated that they spent this week creating contingency plans for a return to class that now won’t include N95s. She said the province has not explained why it won’t provide the respirators.
Dr. Henry on Friday reiterated her position that N95 masks are not necessary in every setting.
She said schools have implemented layers of protection, such as a reduction in the mingling of students, a plan to ensure students stay in cohorts and the use of three-ply surgical masks by students and staff.
“You don’t have to rely on the moderately increased filtration capacity of a respirator versus a medical mask,” Dr. Henry said. “I think we need to be pragmatic and practical as well. We know that we’re not seeing explosive outbreaks of this virus in those settings where we have these things in place.”
Ms. Mooring has also called for teachers to be prioritized for booster shots. While B.C. has dramatically ramped up its booster campaign in recent days, the province has not changed its policy of delivering third shots to people – including teachers – based on their ages and the dates of their second shots.
Candace Latham, who has two children in B.C. public schools, said the existing safety measures in schools aren’t being followed. Students are photographed not wearing their masks properly, HEPA filters have not been installed in all classrooms and windows are not always opened, she said. She lamented the lack of access to at-home rapid antigen COVID-19 tests in the province.
“If parents can’t even access a test, how are schools safe on Monday?” she asked.
Unlike in other provinces, rapid antigen tests were not widely available in B.C. even before Omicron led to worldwide shortages of the kits. Last week, Health Minister Adrian Dix said B.C. was awaiting a supply of at-home tests from the federal government, and earlier this week Ottawa announced that 140 million tests would be delivered to provinces on a per capita basis this month.
Mr. Dix said on Friday that B.C.’s share will be 18 million by next month, with 600,000 to arrive by next week. A third of them will be used to test symptomatic teachers and school staff. Over the coming weeks, he said, his government will be consulting on the best way to establish protocols for self testing.
Ms. Latham, a retired critical care nurse, said her school district has not given parents enough information to decide whether sending their kids to class next week is the right call.
“Epidemiology deals with large numbers, but for teachers, parents and children – we aren’t numbers. We interact on a personal level, and for that reason the stakes with a return to school are higher, and severe illness means something other than just a statistic.”
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