Safety in B.C.’s classrooms is back in the spotlight after two COVID-19 outbreaks were declared in Lower Mainland schools this week.
Chilliwack’s Promontory Elementary moved to remote learning on Wednesday after at least 20 cases were detected in staff and students, and on Friday, Fraser Health declared an outbreak at Maple Ridge Christian School, where 32 cases cropped up.
The outbreaks have parents like Claude Martins, a member of the Safe Schools Coalition BC, concerned.
Martins has two children in elementary school in Vancouver and says he’s worried a similar situation could happen in their school.
He’s particularly worried one of his girls could pick up COVID-19 at school, and bring it home to his immunocompromised wife.
“It is the biggest percentage of our population that can’t get the vaccine until they’re approved for that age group. I feel like school children and schools in general need to be treated the same way we’re treating long-term care facilities, where we have vaccine mandates for staff,” he said.
“We need to look at those same kinds of protocols for our education environments, as well as looking at a mask mandate for all of our staff and all of the students who go to schools.”
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With more than 80 per cent of eligible people now fully vaccinated in B.C., the province’s cases are increasingly being diagnosed in younger children.
Children under the age of nine have doubled from nine per cent of cases at the start of September to 18 per cent of cases this week. In each of the last three reporting days, more than 100 new cases have involved kids nine or younger.
While the occurrence of serious illness from COVID-19 is lower in children than in adults, Martins said at a certain point that ceases to matter.
“The seriousness in that age group may be low, but if the percentages go up then you have more and more kids who actually do have serious complications from it,” he said. “For those families, those platitudes won’t actually be helpful.”
The provincial government maintains that the risk to children is low, and has persisted with its near-normal back-to-school plan, which does not involve class cohorts or masks for kids in Kindergarten to Grade 3.
The province only announced this week that it would resume notifying schools and parents about COVID-19 exposures.
“Unless there is some sort of extra mitigation added to schools, we will continue to see those numbers rise,” Vancouver physician Dr. Anna Wolak told Global News.
She pointed to the latest data from the U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Infection, which showed schools without a K-12 mask mandate had a 3.5 times higher rate of COVID-19 cases.
“We’re already seeing clusters. We did not see clusters, we did not see clusters this early on in the school year when we went back last year. Whether it has to do with Delta and its increased transmissibility or the lower protocols, it’s hard to say,” she said.
The union representing B.C. teachers wants to see masks made mandatory for younger children, along with more improvement to ventilation and a clear protocol for switching rapidly to online learning.
Martins wants all of those measures implemented, along with more transparency about the COVID-19 situation in his kids’ school.
“I don’t feel like they’ve been taking it seriously,” he said.
“My biggest fear is that we’ll just be reactive, that we’ll just continue to put in measures two weeks too late… we’re looking to our leadership to actually provide information and to provide safety precautions, rather than having to rely on parents in the community to crowdsource this.”