‘We are very concerned’: Nearly 100 active COVID-19 school exposures in B.C.’s Interior

Click to play video: 'List of school COVID-19 exposures grows'
List of school COVID-19 exposures grows
The number of schools with COVID-19 exposures in the Interior Health region is skyrocketing. There are nearly 100 schools in this region on the exposure list--about a quarter of them in the Central Okanagan alone. And that has many parents concerned and calling on the government to release more details about the exposures inside schools. Klaudia Van Emmerik reports – Oct 5, 2021

There are 98 active COVID-19 exposures in schools in B.C.’s Southern Interior, according to the latest data published by Interior Health.

All of the coronavirus exposures occurred in late September when a staff member or student attended school while infectious.

“When a school staff member or student tests positive for COVID-19, public health will notify staff and students who need to take a specific action, such as self-monitoring or isolation, as a result of a COVID-19 exposure,” the IH school exposure website said.

The list includes 23 schools in the Central Okanagan, a B.C. hot spot for COVID-19.

Eighteen of the Central Okanagan schools are public, four are independent and one is Kelowna-based within the Conseil Scolaire Francophone school district.

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The most recent exposures occurred on Sept. 29 at H.S. Grenada Middle School in Lake Country, Hudson Road Elementary in West Kelowna, and North Glenmore Elementary in Kelowna.

Kevin Kaardal, superintendent of schools, said transmission occurring within schools remains low.

“I’m not sure that you can prevent the spread of COVID-19 easily without locking down the province and so I think if we’re going to have open schools, we want to make sure that we’re as safe as possible and that we encourage vaccines,” he said.

Paul Kelly, the head of school at Heritage Christian in Kelowna, told parents that 80 people did not attend school on Wednesday, Sept. 22, due to illness related to COVID-19 or the common cold, as well as self-isolation requirements due to COVID-19.

“We are seeing an increase of illness in our school community. This is due to both “colds” and to “COVID,” he said in the email. As of Oct. 5, there are no positive cases and the school is operating as normal following a health-authority-imposed ‘self-monitoring notice’, Kelly said.

Click to play video: 'Day one of K-3 school mask mandate in B.C.'
Day one of K-3 school mask mandate in B.C.

Nicola Baker, vice-president of the Central Okanagan Parent Advisory Council (COPAC), said the spike in COVID-19 cases connected to local schools is alarming.

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“Considering that public health only recently started reporting these exposures, we are very concerned with the number of exposures in Central Okanagan schools already,” she said.

The COPAC said parents would like to see increased transparency from school and health officials about where cases are in schools.

“The broader community is not aware of where those exposures are happening, which classrooms. I think the only people aware of the exposures are the people directly connected to the exposures, and that is difficult for the community to be able to make their own personal judgments about, what they should do with their children on a day-to-day basis,” Baker said.

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Baker added that COPAC wants to hear from parents in the Central Okanagan before approaching school district administration.

“We want to know from parents across the Okanagan what their concerns are. So, at this point, though we would like to see more transparency on the reporting, we want to know from parents across the district what they would like to see,” she said.

The Okanagan Skaha school district is reporting four active school exposures in the Penticton area, including Columbia Elementary, Parkway Elementary, Skaha Lake Middle School and Uplands Elementary. French school Ecole Entre-Lacs in Penticton recorded exposure dates from Sept. 21-24.

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Click to play video: 'B.C. data shows dramatic rise in COVID-19 cases among school-aged children and youth'
B.C. data shows dramatic rise in COVID-19 cases among school-aged children and youth

In the Oliver and Keremeos areas, Oliver Elementary, Southern Okanagan Secondary School and Similkameen Elementary School have also experienced recent COVID-19 exposures.

In School District 22, Vernon’s W.L. Seaton Secondary, Ellison Elementary, St. James School and Cherryville’s local elementary school reported positive cases of COVID-19.

The nearly 100 school exposures are more than double the number Interior Health reported on Sept. 30.

The regional health authority added 41 locations to the list in the days after B.C. health officials gave the go-ahead to publish school exposure data for the 2021-2022 school year.

Immunization clinics were held at schools in Lake Country, Rutland, West Kelowna and Kelowna from Sept. 16-24 to combat the spread of the virus.

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“Interior Health wants to reassure parents that we continue to prioritize schools for contact tracing and closely monitoring the transmission of COVID-19 in Interior Health schools,” IH said in a statement.

“While we are seeing cases among school age children, most cases are acquired at home or at a social setting (i.e. birthday party) outside of the school. The risk of acquiring COVID-19 at school still remains low.”

British Columbia’s provincial health officer has mandated masks for all school children across the province after three school districts announced their own policies to include kindergarten to Grade 3 students.

It’s the second school policy change in the last week based on pressure from parents after Dr. Bonnie Henry announced a resumption in notifications of COVID-19 exposures.

Click to play video: 'Bubble zones and injunctions considered after anti-vaccine protestors enter schools in Salmon Arm'
Bubble zones and injunctions considered after anti-vaccine protestors enter schools in Salmon Arm

School districts in Vancouver, Surrey and Burnaby had already announced that a provincial mask mandate for students in Grade 4 and above would be extended to younger kids on Monday, leaving 57 other school districts to either introduce policies independently or wait for Henry to impose a provincewide measure.

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In announcing the across-the-board mask mandate on Friday, Henry said she has heard the concerns of parents and teachers as cases have risen rapidly over the last couple of weeks among kids, especially those between the ages of five and 11, and in communities with lower vaccination rates.

Henry said the extended school mask mandate will be in place until at least January, at which time it will be assessed based on whether vaccines would be available for children under 12.

A rising number of infections among children has led to more exposure to the virus “and several school outbreaks have also been detected and reported,” she said.

Most of the COVID-19 transmission continues to occur in homes and through social networks as a significant number of kids are being tested for the illness, Henry said.

She encouraged parents and others in the community to get vaccinated and said school staff should also ensure they get their shots to reduce the risk of COVID-19.

Click to play video: 'Walk-in vaccination clinic at Okanagan high school in hopes to increase access, IHA says'
Walk-in vaccination clinic at Okanagan high school in hopes to increase access, IHA says

The provincial health officer said a return to learning cohorts has not been considered because that approach caused significant challenges in the operation of schools when other strategies like reducing group gatherings and assemblies have been more effective in lowering the transmission of COVID-19.

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Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside said school districts have done the work of maintaining and upgrading heating and ventilation systems, while efforts are underway to provide affordable air filters in districts where that is warranted.

Some parents have complained that information about exposures and cases at schools is not being posted online fast enough so children can be kept at home if necessary.

Henry said positive lab tests among school-aged children are being prioritized for follow-up within 24 hours, as members of a public health team call parents about where their kids were during the period they were infectious so possible clusters in schools and communities can be quickly identified.

Click to play video: 'Okanagan students back to school for in-person learning'
Okanagan students back to school for in-person learning

However, public health resources for contact tracing are stretched and a large number of cases in the Northern Health region and parts of Interior Health means there can be a delay of two or three days in posting information for the school community, she said.

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Kyenta Martins, spokeswoman for the parent-driven group Safe Schools Coalition BC, said any lack of resources should be remedied because parents want a clear picture of what’s happening at schools as quickly as possible.

She said an online parent-led page called “BC School COVID Tracker,” which posts exposure and case information based on verifiable data from parents, would continue to be a go-to source if there’s a continuing lag in information posted by public health officials.

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