After outbreak closes B.C. school, new calls for safety protocols and online learning plans

Click to play video: 'COVID-19 outbreak forces closure of Chilliwack elementary school'
COVID-19 outbreak forces closure of Chilliwack elementary school
WATCH: An outbreak of 20 cases of COVID-19 involving students and staff at Promontory Heights Elementary school in Chilliwack has forced its closure, and an immediate switch to at-home, remote learning. John Hua reports – Sep 23, 2021

There are growing calls for a major rework of COVID-19 plans for B.C. schools, after a Chilliwack elementary school was forced to close amid an outbreak.

At least 20 staff and students at Promontory Elementary have tested positive for the virus, prompting the “in-person learning break.”

“(It’s) immensely stressful — not only is this the very beginning of the school year, classes are still being set, kids don’t even know their teachers and routines are still being set,” Chilliwack Teachers Association president Danielle Bennett said of the sudden pivot to online learning.

Read more: B.C. to return to notifying schools, parents about COVID-19 exposures

“We knew last year our cases were increasing, we know in Chilliwack our vaccination rate is extremely low, it was just a matter of time before one of our schools had an outbreak.”

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The closure has left parents in the area scrambling to arrange child care on short notice.

“We’re kind of piecemealing the care right now — I’ve got him, he’s going to go town to my wife’s work for a little while, grandma is going to come, grandpa is going to come, auntie is going to come throughout the whatever it is, 10 days or something,” said Tom McGregor, whose son, Ryder, attends the school.

Click to play video: 'New data on B.C. children admitted to
 ICU with COVID-19'
New data on B.C. children admitted to ICU with COVID-19

“You’ve got to kind of roll with the punches with COVID because nobody really knows what’s around the corner and if you think you know, you’re going to have your mind changed pretty quick.”

The district says it was prepared to move to online-based instruction on existing protocols, an assertion the teachers’ association disputes.

And with the Delta variant still surging in B.C., some parents and teachers say its only a matter of when, not if, other schools will face outbreaks.

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Read more: Masks to be required in B.C. classrooms from Grades 4-12 in September

The president of the B.C. Teachers’ Federation says the system is not equipped for that possibility.

“There’s a lot of considerations that need to go into the preparation to be able to make this pivot (to online learning) and this has happened much earlier this year than it happened last year,” Teri Mooring told Global News.

“And from certainly what we’re all seeing online and unfortunately not from the local health authorities, is that there appears to be a lot more cases this year in schools than there were last year.”

Click to play video: 'Chilliwack elementary school temporarily closes after spike in COVID-19 cases'
Chilliwack elementary school temporarily closes after spike in COVID-19 cases

The union wants the province to develop a set of plans and protocols for how to immediately respond to outbreaks, noting that almost all children in elementary school are not eligible to be vaccinated.

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It’s also renewing its call for a mask mandate for children in Kindergarten to Grade 3, along with improved ventilation in schools.

Former B.C. attorney general and father of two Chilliwack students Barry Penner wants the province to go further, and mandate vaccinations for all adults working at schools, the way it is requiring health-care workers to be immunized.

“For example, immediately to our south, Washington state, everybody who works in the public schools whether you’re a bus driver, librarian, custodian or school teacher or parent volunteer has to be vaccinated in order to be around young children in a confined setting,” he said.

“I don’t think it’s asking for too much for people like teachers that we entrust our children in their care to please take that protection, because it is really a sacred trust when you send your child off to school.”

Read more: ‘Our schools are not safe enough’: B.C. rally pushes for tougher COVID-19 measures

The BCTF has said it would not oppose a vaccine mandate, but would want to review privacy protections and exemptions for workers who cannot be vaccinated.

Teachers have also questioned whether the outbreak at Promontory would have grown as large as it did, had the district been issuing exposure notifications.

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Earlier this week, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said that notification system would be back up and running by the end of the week.

“Our objective from the beginning was to reduce anxiety and we’re going to continue to listen and respond. I think that’s what people expect from us as well,” Premier John Horgan said when asked about the issue Thursday.

On Thursday, B.C. announced another 832 cases of COVID-19, more than a third of them in the Fraser Health region.

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