Teachers’ group calls for more detailed information about COVID-19 exposures

As COVID-19 exposures increase dramatically at local schools, the health authority should make more information public, the Greater Victoria Teachers’ Association says.

The GVTA is calling for ­public release of transmission rates, numbers of classes and students that are asked to isolate, and the overall number of staff and students diagnosed with the virus.

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“From September to March, our schools had three COVID exposures,” said GVTA president Winona Waldron.

“In the four weeks school has been in session from March to this point, we have had 18 more exposures reported.

“We are hearing from our members that they are not necessarily informed when a case is in their class, [when] they have a student who is a close contact of a COVID case, or when siblings are affected.”

Most recently, COVID-19 exposures have been reported at Mount Douglas Secondary School and Victoria High School, where classes are being held at the former S.J. Willis Education Centre while the Fernwood school undergoes a seismic refit and expansion.

Other local schools where COVID-19 exposures have been reported in the past two weeks include Arbutus Middle School, Belmont Secondary School, Oaklands Elementary School, Cedar Hill Middle School and Oak Bay High School. Dunsmuir Middle School was found to have a COVID-19 cluster.

An exposure in a school is defined as the presence of a lab-confirmed case or cases of COVID-19 during the communicable period, while a cluster is two or more confirmed cases during a 14-day period, along with evidence of transmission.

Island Health does contact tracing in schools, and students can continue to attend classes unless their families are directly notified.

Some parents have kept their children home from school amid the surge in COVID-19 exposures at schools in the capital region, however, with attendance dropping by as much as 40 per cent in some schools.

Waldron said absences have gone up significantly “as families try to make decisions about their risks based on scant information.”

The GVTA said the province does not share data about how many school exposures are related to students and how many are related to teachers.

“We believe it would benefit the public to know when a case is present in which class or cohort and whether it is in a child or adult,” Waldron said. “We think it is possible to share this information without compromising an individual’s right to privacy.”

The Ministry of Health said in a statement that it realizes parents, students and staff are concerned about COVID-19 exposures, but the likelihood of transmission in a structured setting like a school is much lower than in the community.

School is the best place for students’ social and emotional well-being, the ministry said, adding that where the risk of community transmission is higher, additional steps are taken, such as the recent vaccination of education staff in the Surrey school district.

Waldron said that public-health officials have described school transmission of COVID-19 as “rare” without saying what that means in terms of statistics.

“The public deserves to be able to read and interpret the data for themselves about school transmission to decide what level of risk is acceptable for them and their children.”

She said people speculate about exposures — if someone is away, they wonder if COVID-19 is involved. More information about what is happening would mean less fear, Waldron said.

If it was known that an exposure was in a primary classroom at an elementary school, for example, parents of intermediate students might choose to continue sending their children, she said.

Waldron said the absence of “clear and factual information” is creating anxiety for parents and teachers and undermining public confidence in the safety of schools.

In a letter to Premier John Horgan this week, interim Liberal Leader Shirley Bond called on the provincial government to “provide full transparency and timely release of data relating to COVID-19” amid rising cases of variants of concern.

jwbell@timescolonist.com

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