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  • Tracy Sherlock

Parents, teachers speak out for safer schools after dozens of covid-19 exposures

Dr. Bonnie Henry's "Be kind, be calm and be safe" slogan decorates a Vancouver school window. (Photo: Vancouver School Board.)

Parents and teachers are expressing their concerns about safety in schools, in a pair of letters and a survey.

Nine of 16 students in a Grade 2 class at Caulfield elementary school in West Vancouver have tested positive for covid-19, as well as five parents, two siblings and two grandparents, Caulfeild parent Coralynn Gehl says in an open letter to provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and Vancouver Coastal Health’s chief medical officer Dr. Patricia Daly.

All of them tested positive within a week and a half of an exposure letter being issued and four of the positive cases were asymptomatic, the letter says.

More than 1,000 people have now signed the open letter, which asks provincial health to require entire cohorts and their siblings to self-isolate when a positive case is identified.

“We believe the cluster at Caulfeild elementary has exposed significant gaps in the cohort system,” the letter says. “In particular, lag time in contact tracing that could potentially allow for the spread of COVID while parents wait for guidance from public health or case confirmation.”

Gehl tweeted that one of the children from the school is now in hospital.

Caulfeild elementary is not alone – an entire class at Elsie Roy elementary in downtown Vancouver was told to self-isolate, CTVBC reports.

Overall, in B.C., there have been at least 77 school exposures in the four weeks schools have been open. In some schools there has been more than one exposure. Dr. Henry said Monday there has been some transmission in schools and “several” entire classes have been told to self-isolate. Despite the number of exposures, Dr. Henry says schools are not “amplifying” the number of covid-19 cases in B.C.

When asked why schools are not more transparent about covid-19 exposures, Dr. Henry cited privacy concerns and said some people who have tested positive have been given nasty notes or have been treated unkindly in other ways. She says schools are safe and that exposures in schools are low risk. Although contact tracing can cause delays, it is working to stop transmission, she said.

But Gehl, and the others who have signed the open letter, urges health leaders to be more transparent and stringent with the safety protocols in schools.

“Your plan to have a full return to school relies on parents trusting your system will keep their children safe,” the letter says. “The past three weeks have shown parents are rapidly losing faith in the cohort system and opting to keep their children at home where they get little to no educational support.”

The letter doesn’t address masks or testing, but Gehl says in a Facebook post that these more complicated issues, for future consideration.

“There is more change on my radar and more I want to do,” Gehl said. “In the meantime, the two changes we have suggested are easy to implement quickly and will make a difference immediately.”

Meanwhile, B.C. Teachers’ Federation president Teri Mooring wrote a letter to Dr. Henry, expressing teachers “deep concerns” about the lack of transparency and consistency across health authorities in reporting covid-19 cases in schools.

“We understand the negative impacts of rumours and speculation especially in the context of a pandemic, this is the reason we take the position that information regarding schools needs to be shared in an open, transparent, and timely manner by the local health authorities,” Mooring writes in the letter.

Teachers are also concerned about the different approaches to contact tracing in different health authorities, the letter says.

“We feel strongly that teachers need to be a part of the contact tracing process when a student is diagnosed with COVID-19,” the letter says. “In classroom settings teachers and other education workers come into close contact with students when they circulate to support student learning, and teachers are a source of additional information in identifying close contacts of individual students.”

Sixty per cent of B.C. teachers who responded to a survey said the health and safety in their school was either “completely inadequate” or “somewhat inadequate,” BCTF said in a news release. The survey was held September 17 to 21 and 8,952 teachers responded.

“A significant majority of teachers are working in schools without the necessary safety measures in place to prevent the possible spread of COVID-19,” Mooring said. “Many teachers are working in classrooms that have no space for physical distancing or access to fresh air. In many cases there has been no reduction in class sizes or school density.”

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