As Gulf Islands students return to classrooms Monday, the school district will shift from contact tracing to monitoring attendance to see if COVID-19 is spreading in a school.
They will also be preparing safety plans and contingency plans should they need to shut schools down due to lack of staff.
Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry reiterated in a news conference Friday that schools are essential and are the best place for students to be. Yet as the Omicron variant spreads in communities, including 39 cases over the past week on the Gulf Islands, Minister of Education Jennifer Whiteside reminded people that schools are not immune.
“Schools are a reflection of what happens in the community,” she said. “We know that students and staff in our schools will be affected by this latest variant and that’s why we want to ensure health and safety measures are in place so children and youth can learn in school to the best extent possible.”
In terms of how families will be notified when COVID-19 becomes an issue in schools, Whiteside explained that a system has been devised with public health that will look “very different” from what has been in place previously.
“As public health has advised us, individual case management and contact tracing is no longer a helpful tool for us in tracking cases in schools,” she said, owing to the shorter incubation period of the Omicron variant. A “proxy” is instead needed to understand what’s happening with transmission in schools.
Individual schools will be monitoring attendance and if it dips below “typical rates for this time of year,” it will trigger a response from public health that could include investigation or rapid antigen tests to better understand what’s happening Whiteside explained.
Individual schools in the Gulf Islands School District (SD64) will be monitoring attendance levels and should they drop by 10 per cent below historically normal levels then Island Health will be informed. Boe Beardsmore, director of instruction and learning services, said this was a previous practice used to monitor spread of things like flu infections.
“Even before, for any type of illness or infection, when we have a 10 per cent absence in a school, that’s 10 per cent more than historical normal, then we report that to public health and then they provide us with any guidance on what we need to do,” she said.
After a student tested positive for COVID-19 at Fulford Elementary School in October 2021, parents of SD64 students criticized what they saw as a slow and sometimes absent notification process by Island Health. Parents of students in close contact with the student who had COVID-19 were informed a few days after the infection was confirmed and one week after the exposure happened a notice was posted on a school exposure website. While notices were previously sent home to families, this was not possible for the October exposure due to privacy guidelines, superintendent Scott Benwell said at the time.
The Driftwood asked Island Health for details about how families will be informed should the 10 per cent below normal absence levels happen. A staff person confirmed via email that the health authority “will work to understand the updated process and will communicate this information to school districts and through our website etc. once we have clarity on how the process will be implemented at a local level.”
Gulf Islands Teachers’ Association president Ian Mitchell said there was a “vagueness” or a “lack of precision” from the province in their briefing today, both about functional closures and how families will be notified of the virus spreading in schools.
School districts have been preparing safety and contingency plans, with an overall focus on protecting students and education workers, Whiteside said. Safety measures will include the provision of three-layer disposable masks and the continued mask mandate for all students, staff and visitors, as well as crowd reduction measures, including staggered break times, assemblies and staff meetings going virtual and restricting visitors.
SD64 has an overall COVID-19 safety plan in place, Beardsmore confirmed, as well as individual plans for each school. Since the start of the pandemic, the school district has also replaced all air filters in the district with MERV 13 filters and are collecting daily carbon dioxide data from the schools. The weather on the Gulf Islands helps out as well, Beardsmore added, as schools can have continuous air circulation thanks to open doors or windows even in winter months.
Henry and Whiteside acknowledged the anxiety families, staff and children may be experiencing ahead of Monday, yet pointed to the high rates of immunization, including boosters among school staff, with upwards of 95 per cent of teachers vaccinated. Whiteside strongly urged families whose children are aged 5 to 11 to get them vaccinated.
The advice across the board for British Columbians is not to get tested and instead stay home for five days if they have mild symptoms. Whether to send their kids to school if they have mild symptoms, or if other household members likely have COVID-19, will be up to families to decide, Henry said.
“Particularly children with mild illness and less likely to have symptoms, yes, we are still allowing children to go to school in those settings and to monitor very carefully,” she said. “If there’s really sick people in the house, it may be up to families to make those decisions about whether they want to keep children home in those scenarios.”
“It is critical that every single day before coming to school, students complete a daily health check, staff as well, and staying home if they have any symptoms,” Whiteside added.
Families can use the self assessment tool at bc.thrive.health to do so.
As the province awaits the delivery of rapid antigen tests, Henry said supporting the school system with outbreak management is one priority area for these tests. Beardsmore said these tests are expected in the coming weeks and the district will know then how they’ll be used in schools. For the time being, the daily health check and staying home if sick are the first line of defence.
Parents are also encouraged to report the results of rapid tests, Whiteside said, as well as contact the school if their child is staying home because of illness.
Plans have also been prepared to ensure learning continues should a shift to home-based learning be needed, Whiteside said. SD64 is planning for how to ensure learning isn’t interrupted in case of a functional closure, meaning the need to close a school should there be inadequate staff to provide the level of teaching, supervision or support to ensure health and safety of students, Beardsmore explained. In this case, school districts could shift to fully remote learning and schools have been planning for how to deal with potential interruptions in learning.
While he gave kudos to the school district for continuously trying to attract staff, Mitchell said the cost of real estate and the “deplorable” rental situation make it hard to recruit and have a robust teachers’ on-call list.
The concern with blended or online learning, Mitchell said, is that how it will look isn’t spelled out yet and with such a shift, the workload for teachers could also go up.
“We don’t know what that’s going to look like when the doors open on Monday, how many missing kids there’s going to be and teachers that’s going to be and it’ll unfold as we go,” he said.