Families will be notified if child exposed to COVID-19 at school: minister

B.C.’s education minister says parents who are worried about schools not sending out exposure notifications this year should know they will be notified if their child has come into contact with someone with the COVID-19 virus.

Jennifer Whiteside made the comments at a news conference in Langley Thursday to highlight a dozen new or updated schools.

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Whiteside said health authorities will continue to be vigilant about who has been exposed to the virus.

“The health authorities have the contact-tracing ability in place to ensure that process will continue. So we can be very confident that should there be an exposure in school, the family will be notified,” she said.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has said schools would end the practice of sending out mass emails every time there is a case at the school.

Masks will be mandatory for Grades 4 to 12 but not for younger children, a policy that has upset the teachers’ union and some parents. Whiteside said schools have worked hard to encourage all students to wear masks but it will remain discretionary for those in kindergarten to Grade 3.

“Since the beginning of the pandemic, our government made a decision to trust the expertise of our public health officials,” she said. “That is what has informed our health and safety plans.”

Last year, the B.C. Centre for Disease Control recommended masks for Grades 4 to 12 and all staff and that is the same requirement that is in place for this school year, she added.

Whiteside said public health officials have also determined that a cohort system for older grades is no longer needed. She said the cohort system, which grouped students together for classes, arrivals, departures and breaks, was disruptive to time-tabling and students and families have been looking forward to being back in school full-time.

“They served a purpose at the outset [of the pandemic], but we’re not at the same place now as we were last year — we have vaccines,” she said.

Schools could still employ ways of limiting congestion, staggering school start and end times and limiting the size of in-school gatherings.

While Whiteside could not say how many teachers and support staff have been vaccinated — there is no mechanism to track vaccinations by occupation — she said various internal reports and the B.C. Teacher’s Federation have indicated that vaccine take-up has been high among education staff.

The president of the B.C. Teachers’ Federation, Terri Mooring, has said teachers want more safety measures, like a mask mandate for all teachers, staff and students from kindergarten to Grade 12, in place before the first day of school.

Mooring said with the highly contagious Delta variant, there is a need for a mask mandate at the start of the year. She said it’s harder to get people to comply mid-year than to begin with the safety measures at the beginning.

As schools prepare to welcome students back next week, the province cut the virtual ribbon Thursday on eight new schools, including two on Vancouver Island.

The schools, including the Children’s Development Centre in Saanich and Courtenay’s Lake Trail Middle School, are part of 16 new or refurbished institutions the province has spent more than $353 million to get ready for the 2021-22 school year.

Over the last four years, the government has plowed more than $2.5 billion into building new schools, upgrading and replacing others and buying land for future schools.

The Children’s Development Centre now has a new $4.2-million building, replacing an old structure that required seismic upgrades with a larger facility that will also have office and meeting space.

The centre, which can handle about 16 students at a time, provides support for students of elementary- and middle-school age who need extra social and emotional help. That can include students struggling with social dynamics who might be having challenges settling in the classroom, or those dealing with anxiety or difficulty controlling emotions.

The Lake Trail Middle School project cost $27.2 million and largely replaces the existing school. Only the gymnasium from the old school remains. The new school can handle 550 students.

aduffy@timescolonist.com

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