COVID-19: ‘Rocky times’ ahead as B.C. gears up to go back to school

“There is no perfect system,” says Surrey dad Bryan Stewart, who believes it’s best for kids to be in class even if it’s tough

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An extended Christmas break will come to an end for B.C. kids on Monday as schools reopen with new protocols for detecting COVID-19 outbreaks as the Omicron variant renders contact tracing less effective.

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“This is going to be a challenging month,” Dr. Bonnie Henry predicted at a Friday morning media briefing, “but it doesn’t mean we have to stop everything.”

The provincial health officer has said numerous times that keeping schools open is one of her “highest priorities” along with preventing serious illness and death and supporting the health care system. But while kids will return to classrooms on Monday, she said B.C. will face “some rocky times in the next month.”

With test results and contact tracing lagging far behind the ability of the virus to spread, school attendance rates will act as a “proxy” to signal when there might be an outbreak, explained Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside, who was also at the briefing.

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Schools are charged with notifying public health about a “signal of concern,” typically when normal attendance drops by about 10 per cent in a particular class, triggering further investigation and, possibly in the future, the use of rapid tests.

Notification of parents will be left to school administrators, who must also determine whether a school can continue to operate if staff begin to fall ill. School districts have been planning for functional closures, with classes possibly moving online, if they don’t have enough teachers.

In a statement Friday, the Vancouver School District called functional closures “a last resort” and pledged to “do everything possible to find substitutions and reassign staff.” If all options were exhausted, impacted schools will shift to online learning for a short time.

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Whiteside said the delayed reopening had given school districts “time to adapt.” She was told by the Surrey School District that it was capable of keeping schools open unless more than 25 per cent of its staff were off, but that level would vary between districts.

In addition to new measures to reduce crowding, restrict visitors and stagger break times, schools have been provided with three-layer disposable masks that will in turn be given to kids who do not have one. On Monday morning, kids should expect a “refresher” on the proper way to wear a mask, Whiteside said.

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The return to school was welcome news to Bryan Stewart.

“We’ve gotten vaccinated, we’re only gathering in small groups and we’ve done all that we can, but there is no perfect system,” said the Surrey dad.

While opening schools might lead to increased cases, closing them “comes at a cost, too,” said Stewart, whose father and sister are both educators. He has another family member works in health care. “For people who can’t work from home, or don’t have the resources to find child care, I think kids need to get back to school.”

While he hopes schools will do what they can to improve ventilation — he’d like to see running water installed for handwashing in his daughter’s Grade 4 classroom — he maintains “we still have to live our lives.”

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Steph Troughton said she felt “relief” at hearing her Grade 6 son would be headed back to school in Vancouver on Monday.

“I don’t want him to get ill, but the alternative to school is online school and that was problematic for us,” she said.

Challenges with technology and scheduling made her feel like he wasn’t getting a good quality education while he was learning at home. “Once he was back in school it was so dramatically different,” she said.

Vancouver mom Kyenta Martins has decided not to send her two kids back to school on Monday because she isn’t comfortable with the safety measures the government has put in place.
Vancouver mom Kyenta Martins has decided not to send her two kids back to school on Monday because she isn’t comfortable with the safety measures the government has put in place. Photo by Arlen Redekop /PNG

But other parents want to see the government put more measures in place. On Thursday, Kyenta Martins told Postmedia she made the “heartbreaking” decision not to send her two children back to their Vancouver school next week.

“They’re really upset that they won’t get to see their friends,” said Martins, who is a member of the Safe Schools Coalition B.C. “This is not a forever decision, but it’s what we have to do right now.”

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B.C. Teachers’ Federation president Teri Mooring told a press conference Friday that teachers are dedicated to in-class learning, but they have been “frustrated” by the planning for functional closures when they believe additional safety measures could be put in place.

At the top of the list is making N95 masks available to all teachers and students, but the union also wants teachers prioritized for booster shots, ventilation systems improved and a determined vaccination campaign aimed at getting children in the 5-to-11 age group their shot, she said.

Mooring said mask wearing has been a “challenging” issue for teachers, who have encountered kids who refuse to wear them, but aren’t tasked with enforcing provincial health orders.

BCTF president Teri Mooring.
BCTF president Teri Mooring. Photo by Jason Payne /PNG

Both Henry and Whiteside encouraged parents of young kids to get them vaccinated during Friday’s briefing, with the provincial health officer saying it “makes a big difference” in keeping them healthy.

gluymes@postmedia.com

twitter.com/glendaluymes

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