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  • Tracy Sherlock

Do B.C. schools meet U.S. CDC standards for in-person learning?

The American Centers for Disease Control recently updated their recommendations for schools during the COVID-19 pandemic and the New York Times did an interactive story showing that only four per cent of American counties have low enough transmission to have schools open for full-time, in-person instruction.

How do Metro Vancouver and the rest of B.C. compare? Let’s take a look.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control divide their recommendations into four categories: low transmission (blue), moderate transmission (yellow), substantial transmission (orange) and high transmission (red.)

A region must be in the low or moderate zones to have schools open full-time. To fall into those zones, there should be fewer than 50 COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people in the last seven days and fewer than eight per cent of tests coming back positive. If a region is higher in one category, but not the other, it should go with the higher category, the CDC says.

B.C.’s latest report breaking down case numbers by health authority is for the week of February 20 and the province’s case counts have increased since that time. That week, the entire province had an average of 60 cases per 100,000 population, falling into the CDC’s "substantial" category. Fraser Health was highest at 89 cases per 100,000, Northern Health second at 72 and Vancouver Coastal Health third at 63, all above the CDC threshold for full-time, in-person instruction. Vancouver Island Health and Interior Health are both below the threshold at 21 and 23 cases per 100,000, which is in the CDC’s moderate zone.

In terms of testing, B.C. is faring a bit better. On March 4, the positivity rate in Fraser Health was 7.9 per cent, the absolute highest, by CDC standards, that would allow full-time, in-person instruction. In Northern Health, the positivity rate was a whopping 11.7 per cent, which puts it into the red, or high, community-transmission zone. Vancouver Coastal Health was at 6.5 per cent, Interior Health was at 4.3 per cent and Vancouver Island Health was at three per cent.

Based on the case and positivity numbers, schools in Fraser Health, Northern Health and Vancouver Coastal Health shouldn’t be open for full-time, in-person instruction. Rather, the CDC recommends a hybrid-learning mode when transmission is this high. That mode should reduce attendance and allow for physical distancing.

The good news is that many districts in B.C. already have hybrid instruction in place with reduced attendance and a choice for online learning, which results in reduced in-person attendance.

The bad news is that not every district is using these strategies. Also, even with low community transmission, the U.S. CDC calls for universal mask use for all students and physical distancing of six feet, which are not in place in B.C. schools at the moment. Elementary students are not required to wear masks and physical distancing is often not possible in crowded classrooms. The CDC also calls for cleaning and maintaining healthy facilities, contract tracing, isolation, quarantine and testing of everyone with symptoms.

Sports and other extracurricular activities should only happen if they can be held outdoors, with physical distancing of six feet or more, the CDC recommends. Those types of events in the community should not take precedence over keeping schools open, the CDC says.

The guidelines recognize that schools and social interaction are crucial to young people’s development and that English learners, students with disabilities and students from low-income areas may disproportionately experience learning loss.

“K to 12 schools should be the last settings to close after all other mitigation measures in the community have been employed, and the first to reopen when they can do safely,” the guidelines says. “Decision-makers and communities should prioritize schools for reopening and remaining open for in-person instruction over nonessential businesses and activities including indoor dining, bars, social gatherings, and close contact sports as community transmission is controlled.”

Certainly, that has been the case in British Columbia – keeping schools open has been a priority for decision makers.

The guidelines note that younger children are less susceptible to COVID-19 and do not tend to get seriously ill with the disease. Younger children benefit more from in-person learning, so the CDC guidelines prioritize in-person learning for younger students. They also recommend that students whose families are at increased risk of severe illness should always be given the option of remote instruction, during the pandemic.

In many ways B.C. has already been meeting these guidelines. How can the province improve? A mask mandate in elementary schools would be one way. Trying to implement more physical distancing in classrooms would be another. Making sure that all students have the option for online learning, especially in areas with substantial or high community transmission, would be a third way. All of the hybrid or at-home options should be extended at least through the end of this year and districts that don’t have those options should consider developing them.

As B.C.’s provincial heath officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has said, we are at a crossroads in the pandemic, with vaccines creating hope, but COVID-19 variants creating fear. Variant cases doubled in the past week, from 120 to 250. We're not through the pandemic yet.

Keeping schools open is critical, so everything possible that can be done to keep them safe, should be done.

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