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B.C. should join other provinces in releasing list of school-related COVID-19 cases: teachers’ union

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The BC Teachers Federation says it doesn't make sense for teachers on call to be travelling to multiple schools, while districts are trying to keep teachers and students in separate learning groups. Richard Zussman reports – Nov 17, 2020

The president of the BC Teacher’s Federation says if other provinces can release detailed information about COVID-19 cases in schools — B.C. can, and should, as well.

Parents living in Alberta who want to know the COVID-19 status of their children’s school can access the information fairly easily.

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B.C. students and teachers return to school, despite pandemic concerns – Jan 4, 2021

They can download a spreadsheet with a list of every school in the province and the range of cases they have had.

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Ontario similarly lists every school that’s experiencing COVID-19 cases, along with the number of cases and the breakdown between students and staff.

Read more: Parents at West Vancouver school call for transparency on COVID-19 ‘exposures’

But BCTF president Teri Mooring said it’s a very different situation in B.C., where health authorities have been tight lipped about cases, clusters, and outbreaks.

The privacy of people involved must be upheld, but authorities can easily do that while still providing important information to the public, she said.

“The lack of sharing the data really leads to distrust in the system and we have a lot of concerns about that,” she told Global News.

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Nearly 50 COVID-19 cases linked to Surrey’s Earl Marriot Secondary – Jan 4, 2021

“Right now what we have is families and individuals are taking it upon themselves to share this information on social media.”

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Mooring said that information alongside the lack of details from official sources is causing families and teachers to lose faith in the system.

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“There’s a real cost to not providing this type of information, because it just seems like things aren’t above board.”

Read more: West Vancouver parents turn to Facebook for COVID-19 updates: ‘I’m terribly uneasy’

With the B.C. government now committing to release a weekly report of outbreaks at long term care, assisted living and independent living facilities — after being criticized by data scientists and journalists for stopping those updates for a number of weeks — Mooring is calling for similar information to be released about schools.

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20,000 people sign petition calling on B.C. to delay return to school – Jan 2, 2021

“How many students have been diagnosed, how many school staff have been diagnosed, how many classes have been asked to self-isolate, how many in-school transmissions there have been?” Mooring asked.

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“All of this information can very easily be shared without identifying individuals.”

Meanwhile, twelve local teachers’ union presidents from the Fraser Health region are calling on the health authority to improve safety standards in schools in the region.

Amid repeated demands for a mask mandate, decreased classroom density and timely contact tracing — the presidents are also calling for increased data and transparency around the threshold to declare outbreaks in schools.

Mooring said the current definitions of ‘case,’ ‘cluster’ and ‘outbreak’ have internal meaning to the health authorities, but don’t make sense to the general public.

Read more: No mandatory masks in B.C. schools despite sweeping new COVID-19 orders

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An example of this, she said, was at Earl Marriott Secondary in Surrey where close to 50 cases were diagnosed, but officials did not declare an outbreak.

Mooring said to her understanding, the rationale for that decision at Fraser Health was that declaring an outbreak would mean the school would need to close, which it was already doing for winter break.

“That doesn’t make sense to people. And so those terms need to be defined and make sense to the public and then used appropriately,” she said.

When news of those cases came to light, a spokesperson for Surrey Schools deferred to Fraser Health with respect to how outbreaks are declared, saying the district “relies on the advice of our medical health experts to guide the safe operation of our schools.”

Fraser Health’s website defines an outbreak as “multiple individuals with lab-confirmed COVID-19 infection when transmission is likely widespread within the school setting.”

Read more: 20K sign petition calling on B.C. to delay return to school by 2 weeks

Mooring said communication has been a consistent problem during the pandemic when it comes to schools, but it’s not just teachers who feel that way.

“Communication has been really lacking. Everyone — including the health authorities, including the provincial health office, including the government — has agreed that communication needs to be improved,” she said.

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“We’re just not seeing those improvements happening quickly enough.”

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