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Safety reminder signs outside the library in Hastings Community Elementary School in Vancouver, on Sept. 2, 2020.

Taehoon Kim/The Globe and Mail

British Columbia will provide information online about COVID-19 cases in schools, with the head of one regional health authority saying the public disclosure is designed to reassure anxious parents and combat misinformation that may spread in the absence of official statements.

“We’re doing this in an effort to be as transparent as possible, and to support parents in providing them with the information that they need so they can make safe choices for their children,” said Victoria Lee, the Fraser Health Authority president and chief executive officer, on Wednesday during a conference call with reporters.

“We’re also doing it to combat some of the information that circulates on social media – which is not always accurate. And we found that by being transparent and accurate and upfront with this information, it really helps to reduce the anxiety that can happen when a school becomes aware that an infectious case has been present in their environment.”

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Fraser Health’s site was running on Wednesday. The Ministry of Health said other regional health authorities (there are five in the province) are expected to launch similar sites soon.

B.C. parents and teachers have been clamouring online for more timely information on exposure of COVID-19 in schools, especially after neighbouring Alberta launched a map tracking schools identified as having two or more confirmed cases.

Previously in B.C., individual schools notified parents of potential exposure if a person connected to that school was confirmed to have COVID-19. Although those notices were not shared in a central location, reports quickly spread on social media.

Now, when an exposure letter is issued in the Fraser Health region, an event will be listed on the school exposure page. Should outbreaks occur, those would also be listed.

An event does not mean that all the students at a given school have been exposed, Dr. Lee said. Public health workers would contact any individuals involved in a case, or in close contact, as part of the contact tracing process.

As of Wednesday afternoon, the site listed exposures at six schools: one in Delta and five in Surrey. Surrey is B.C.'s biggest school district, with about 74,000 students enrolled last year. More than 40 per cent of B.C.'s school-aged children live in the Fraser Health region, the health authority said.

“This is a really difficult decision for public health [officials] to make,” said Barry Pakes, an assistant professor with the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto.

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There are confidentiality concerns, especially when it comes to identifying cases in rural or remote areas where individuals can be readily identified, Dr. Pakes said Wednesday in an interview.

Health officials also have to balance the public’s desire to know with the possibility that people may be reluctant to disclose symptoms if they are worried that their private health information might expose them to discrimination or stigma.

“We know that with workplaces and other sites, and this is likely with schools as well – when people know they are going to be outed, when people know their privacy and confidentiality is going to be violated, … they’re going to be less likely to come forward.

“And when people are less likely to come forward, they are going to be less likely to get tested, they’re going to be less likely to be truthful and compliant with case and contact management – those are the risks,” he said.

But one of the key elements in how jurisdictions have fared in handling COVID-19 is public trust in health officials – and that can be enhanced through greater transparency, he said, adding that schools are a relatively controlled environment that should allow for quick contract tracing and control when cases occur.

We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.

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