Health authorities change tack on school COVID reporting, citing parent feedback

Dr. Bonnie Henry says public health officials have heard from parents and will change course this week on how parents and schools are updated on COVID cases and clusters in schools.

During the past school year, lists of school exposures — cases detected during the communicable period of a disease — were posted online by health authorities, but for this school term, only clusters and outbreaks have been reported, with no school-wide notifications via letters over a COVID exposure at a school. Parents were told that only individuals at risk would be contacted.

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Henry, B.C.’s ­provincial health officer, said she ­initially believed broad COVID school notifications last year had caused parents and ­administrators anxiety, but she has heard from parents across the province, along with ­educators and her public health team, that parents want an authoritative source where they can find out what’s happening with COVID in their children’s schools.

The goal is to notify schools in a “timely, less intrusive and more sustainable way,” she said Tuesday. “I do want to reassure you that if your child has COVID, if your child has been exposed to somebody with COVID in the school system, you will be notified.”

Henry said parents will have access to COVID information in schools very soon. “I hope to have that in place by the end of this week, so that you can have an understanding of what is happening at your child’s school.”

She said it takes time to trace contacts and follow up on each COVID case — sometimes longer than people expect.

A cluster in a school refers to two or more cases in a 14-day period with evidence of transmission within a school, while an outbreak is multiple confirmed cases and signs of ongoing school transmission.

In response to the health authorities’ change in COVID reporting in schools, a citizens’ group had established the B.C. School COVID Tracker website (bcschoolcovidtracker.knack.com/bc-school-covid-tracker) as a place where parents could get information and report positive cases.

Greater Victoria schools have been listed by the tracker 19 times since Sept. 10, including seven listings on Monday. Island schools are mentioned 67 times, including three Monday and one Tuesday.

Greater Victoria Teachers’ Association president Winona Waldron called Henry’s announcement “welcome news.”

“It sounds like we won’t really know until the end of the week what that exposure notice will look like, if it’s the same as last year,” she said. “But right now parents and teachers are relying on social media and word of mouth as to whether or not there’s been an exposure and to make whatever assessment they want to make about their safety.”

That doesn’t seem right, ­Waldron said.

“The information’s getting out there anyway, it’s just not ­verified,” she said. “If it’s going to be out there, it should be ­coming from the health ­authority.”

Henry said public health teams are prioritizing schools because they know “how important it is to make sure that children are safely in school, and able to have all of the learning experience in the school setting.”

Health Minister Adrian Dix said Tuesday hundreds of contact tracers are being added in health authorities across the province. In Island Health, there are 56 contact tracers and 113 are being added.

Henry noted that the situation in schools is better this fall because so many school staff and students are protected through vaccinations.

ceharnett@timescolonist.com

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