‘Everything changed’: Victoria teachers, parents anxious about rising COVID-19 exposures in schools

The province has consistently said schools are not a major source of transmission, but rarely provides up-to-date data

By Brishti Basu
April 19, 2021

‘Everything changed’: Victoria teachers, parents anxious about rising COVID-19 exposures in schools

The province has consistently said schools are not a major source of transmission, but rarely provides up-to-date data

By Brishti Basu
Apr 19, 2021
Province of BC / Flickr
Province of BC / Flickr

‘Everything changed’: Victoria teachers, parents anxious about rising COVID-19 exposures in schools

The province has consistently said schools are not a major source of transmission, but rarely provides up-to-date data

By Brishti Basu
April 19, 2021
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‘Everything changed’: Victoria teachers, parents anxious about rising COVID-19 exposures in schools

Around the start of April, Sarah Burrough and her family decided it was time to pull their third grader, Emma, out of school. 

The Victoria residents have another child, Ben—an eighth-grade student enrolled in a hybrid model of schooling that lets him study from home three days a week. On the days he goes to school, the class sizes are smaller and everyone wears a mask, thanks to BC’s new mask mandate for children in Grades 4 through 12. 

These safety measures aren’t there in his little sister’s classroom.

“Emma has been going [to school] full time up until two weeks ago, and then we saw the [COVID-19 case] numbers starting to increase,” Burrough said. “We're lucky enough to be able to make it work at home, so we pulled her out.

“We were tentatively going to send her back [on] Monday, but that's not going to happen.”

The level of anxiety among teachers and school staff in the Greater Victoria School District has also reached new highs during the third wave of the pandemic. Carolyn Howe, vice-president of the Greater Victoria Teachers’ Association and kindergarten teacher at South Park Family School, has been hearing from teachers across the district who say they’re living in fear of contracting the virus in school. 

“Everyone's watching the numbers all the time, and they're seeing that Victoria has been in this exponential growth pattern of active COVID cases,” Howe said.

“When we came back to school in September, we had very few [active cases]... and now we're into the hundreds of those.”

Though there was some anxiety about having to return to classrooms during a pandemic, teachers quickly adapted to new safety measures in schools. But when the third wave hit, schools in Victoria were met with a surge of COVID-19 exposure notices, and it suddenly became clear that the situation had changed. 

Last week, one of Howe’s colleagues at South Park burst into tears after sending one of her students home sick. Her husband is at high risk for becoming severely ill if he is exposed to the virus, and she lives in constant fear of infecting him. 

The province has consistently said schools are not a major source of transmission and the safety measures in place are adequate to keep transmission rates low in those settings. But for months, teachers’ unions across BC have been asking provincial health officials to provide data to back up the claim.

It’s part of a pattern in BC of a lack of transparency coupled with protective measures that seem to come late or not at all, baffling teachers and the public. The province maintains its decisions are based on science but often declines to provide the underlying data. Now, with cases skyrocketing in schools, the teachers’ union is demanding answers.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry finally revealed some of what the province knows about school-based transmission as part of a Thursday presentation on epidemiological modelling. 

She presented the results of two school-based studies. The first was conducted in the Vancouver Coastal Health region between September and December 2020. Within that time, only 8% of student and staff cases were “likely acquired in school.” 

The second study, conducted in the Fraser Health region between January and March 7, 2021, shows 13% of COVID-19 cases among school students and staff likely came from school.

This data, along with graphs that showed case counts among the general population and among school attendees over time, was used to back up the claim that school closures do not lead to a drop in cases among students and staff. 

A slide from a BC government update on Thursday

“I know there is a lot of talk about needing to close schools. We’re not seeing that as an issue,” Henry said on Thursday.

“It’s because we recognize how important school is for families, for communities, and for children. It certainly is something we continue to pay attention to.”

While the provincial health officer said cases among students rise when school is on break and more transmission occurs in the community, the graphs seem to indicate that school cases stayed relatively steady during and after winter break, but started to rise during and after spring break. 

And while the data used for the presentation on Thursday accounts for school exposures in the Lower Mainland, information collected by teachers in Victoria paints a different picture—and suggests a different course of action.

Inside Victoria schools

There had only been three school exposures in the Greater Victoria School District for the entire school year, according to Howe. And then spring break happened.

“The week before spring break, everything changed,” Howe said. In the first two weeks of March, before the start of spring break on March 15, the school district had five school exposure notices. 

“Since then [we’ve had] similar numbers. I definitely would not consider that related to spring break at all. Our data does not show that,” she said. Something changed, but it wasn’t due to kids spending more time in their communities, as Dr. Henry had suggested.

Now the virus has become entrenched in Victoria-area schools: as of April 19, there are 19 active school exposure notices on the Island Health website, 11 of which are in the Capital Regional District. 

That number could very well be higher, as Island Health says the school exposure page on their website is only updated after schools have had a chance to notify their community, which means there is a delay. 

The information provided by contact tracers to the school community is also incomplete, according to Howe; it doesn’t even reveal whether the infected person is a student or staff member. The result is a patchwork of information shared through whisper networks instead of official channels.

“The contact tracers shared [information about exposures] directly with the district and teachers, if individuals or families gave consent—but it was to stay confidential, not to be shared with the school community,” Howe said.

“Teachers confidentially reported to the union when it was a student in their class, but we had no official confirmation of this.”

In one situation, a Victoria family did not consent to contact tracers telling teachers whether the patient was a student or staff member, but teachers were able to observe and deduce that the patient was a Grade 2 student. 

“This was really unfortunate, because when teachers are informed, they can help with contact tracing,” Howe said.

“If they are not informed, the contact tracers rely on the information provided by the child about their contacts—in this case, a child in Grade 2, with a five-day exposure to account for.”

Gaps in provincial data

The data on school-based cases presented by provincial health leaders on Thursday has also been criticized for being too little too late. It only extends as far as March 7. 

“It's good information, but I'm not sure it's going to actually put people at ease when they want to know what's actually happening in schools right now,” said Teri Mooring, president of the BC Teachers’ Federation. 

“What I'm really hoping moving forward is that we're going to get more timely data. I would hope that next week, we're going to see April data. We've been pushing for data for so many months, but we need current [information].”

Dr. Henry was asked Thursday if there’s an increased likelihood of transmission in schools now due to variants of concern. She replied that variants were already part of the equation in the study of schools in the Fraser Health region.

“We’ve done a lot of extensive testing when we’ve known that there was a variant of concern exposure event in a school, and we have not seen increased transmission related to that in schools to date,” Henry said. “That is something we are watching.”

The cut-off date for the Fraser Health study, however, was March 7, 2021. Based on a different graph shared by Henry during the same presentation, cases among children aged five to 18 did not start growing until at least one week later—at which point they tripled within a month.

BC goverment COVID numbers broken down by age group, presented Thursday

For her part, Howe says Thursday’s presentation left her with several unanswered questions.

“If they’re saying… 8-13% of cases lead to transmission in schools, what I want to know before I feel I can trust that data is what percentage of cases in schools have an unknown source of transmission,” she said. An unknown source of transmission means contact tracing has broken down for that case and it is circulating more widely than health officials know.

“The other thing… is testing. What we do know is when people are sent to self isolate, they aren't required to test. And there hasn't been any general kind of exploratory testing in schools.”

Howe says for her, the data doesn’t show the full picture until exploratory testing is done in an entire school, including for those who may be asymptomatic. Teachers have been told all along that children tend to show few or no symptoms when they have the virus.

One statement made by Henry on Thursday received a more positive response from teachers. After revealing that entire households are now often becoming ill if one person contracts the virus, Henry said children should be kept home from school if anyone in the house is sick and has not yet been tested for COVID-19. However, this is new guidance that has not yet been sent out through official school channels or conveyed to families who may not have watched Henry’s press conference.

“I was happy to hear that [on Thursday]. I think it's very solid advice,” Mooring said. 

“This is actually contrary to guidance given earlier. Government and the provincial health office and local health authorities need to find a way to communicate that clearly [to families].”

Calls for better safety measures

Though there are no official figures or statistics, teachers across BC know more families are deciding to keep their children home from school these days.

“In light of the numbers right now, certainly anecdotally, we're hearing that some families are choosing to remove their children because they just don't feel they have enough information to make informed decisions,” Mooring said.

In Howe’s kindergarten class, she noted that there was a 25% rate of absenteeism in the first two weeks after spring break. 

“We do have several parents who've told us that they will be sending their kids to school only when we're outside, doing outside activities,” Howe said.

Many families in Victoria have the same safety concerns as Burrough and her family, but there is no way to switch to a virtual learning model partway through the year. Parents and guardians in the Greater Victoria School District had to opt their kids into the hybrid learning program back in the fall. The ability to switch to a hybrid learning model now, in the third wave of the pandemic, is one measure the teachers’ union has been calling for, particularly in hotspots where transmission rates are high in the community.

“We don't have enough preventative measures in place,” Mooring said. “All along, we've said we need to be preventative rather than reactive. Why wait till there’s a high level of community transmission? Why wait till we have school exposure notifications every single day, or more than one a day?”

The teachers’ union is also asking for the provincial mask mandate—which currently requires students in Grades 4 to 12 to wear masks in schools—to be extended to younger children in K-3. 

“Kids are able to wear masks and teachers are able to ascertain when they need a break from them or when it's not a good idea. I think that it could go further than just merely being encouraged [in K-3],” Howe said.

Another long-standing concern is ventilation in schools.

According to Mooring, there are some schools in the province in which ventilation systems are not up to the standards required in the health and safety guidelines. Since September, the union has been asking the province to provide HEPA filters in classrooms as necessary—a request that seems to have fallen on deaf ears. 

“We have a number of weeks between now and the end of June,” Mooring said. “We are having delays with the supply of vaccines, and we think that there's a lot of time between now and the end of June, where we're concerned things are going to continue to get worse. Some of those conversations are happening at the ministry steering committee, and they need to happen quickly.”

On Thursday, Henry also announced that teachers in communities identified as COVID-19 transmission hotspots will be prioritized for Pfizer and Moderna vaccinations, alongside firefighters and police officers.

Victoria teachers have not been told whether or when they might qualify.

“It's been a complete communication embargo. I heard that frustration loud and clear from one of my colleagues recently,” Howe said. 

“She said, ‘I feel like I'm waiting for the other shoe to drop. I'm just hoping I get the vaccine before I get COVID or someone I care about does.’”

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