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B.C. education minister looks to fill ‘gaps’ in COVID-19 school safety plans

FILE - In this June 10, 2020, file photo, Olivia Chan's father helps her with a new mask she received during a graduation ceremony for her Pre-K class in front of Bradford School in Jersey City, N.J. As the Trump administration pushes full steam ahead to force schools to resume in-person education, public health experts warn that a one-size-fits-all reopening could drive infection and death rates even higher. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File). AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File

B.C.’s education minister says the province is looking to fill “gaps” in safety plans in order to prevent school-based COVID-19 transmission.

Jennifer Whiteside told reporters on Tuesday there continues to be minimal transmission in schools. Where there has been transmission there are worries about people not doing self-assessments before going into the school system and ensuring the classrooms are configured to ensure there is no sharing of supplies.

“We know when we have gaps in our safety plans that is when people in our schools are at risk,” Whiteside said.

Click to play video: 'Another case of COVID-19 variant detected at Surrey school' Another case of COVID-19 variant detected at Surrey school
Another case of COVID-19 variant detected at Surrey school – Mar 1, 2021

Earlier Tuesday the province said six regional COVID-19 rapid response teams are in place to support B.C.’s K-12 schools and school districts with safety plans and exposure assessments.

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The safety team was in Surrey for the first day. The teams will work with schools, school districts and health authority staff to review significant school exposure events, make recommendations and support schools to enhance their safety plans when needed.

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“Rapid response teams are a critically important addition to the health and safety measures that are keeping schools safe for students and staff,” Whiteside said.

“As the pandemic evolves, these teams will help us respond quickly and adapt, where necessary, to ensure best practices are being consistently applied throughout the education sector.”

Click to play video: 'Three more schools in Fraser Health reporting variant exposures' Three more schools in Fraser Health reporting variant exposures
Three more schools in Fraser Health reporting variant exposures – Feb 27, 2021

The teams are funded by money from the federal government as part of its Safe Return to Class Fund. The province is investing $900,000 to support one team for each B.C. health authority and one dedicated to supporting independent schools.

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The teams will also be responsible to review school or district COVID-19 safety plans and conduct school safety assessments.

The lead school districts include:

  • Surrey for the Fraser Health region
  • Nanaimo-Ladysmith for the Island Health region
  • Central Okanagan for the Interior Health region
  • Peace River North for the Northern Health region
  • Vancouver for the Vancouver Coastal Health region

Surrey has already worked with Fraser Health to complete environmental assessments of three schools with exposure events. Those assessments have been shared with all schools in the district.

Read more: New B.C. COVID-19 school exposures in 2021

This comes as the B.C. Teachers’ Federation raises concerns over new WorkSafeBC data showing a rise in occupational COVID-19 infection claims in the education services sector since early December.

The union says 82 per cent of teachers’ claims for occupational COVID-19 infection have been accepted by WorkSafeBC, compared to 70 per cent of COVID-19 claims by all workers in B.C.

The high percentage of claims that have been accepted suggests teachers experience a significantly greater risk of exposure to COVID-19 compared to other workers, the union said.

“The provincial health officer continues to tell us that rates of COVID-19 transmission in schools is low, but the data is telling a different story,” BCTF President Teri Mooring said.

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“Like other frontline workers, teachers are going above and beyond every single day. However, they don’t have the same protections as many other workers.”

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