Education minister Jennifer Whiteside gives an update on COVID safety measures in the K-12 system. Province of BC / Flickr

No COVID notifications in K-12 system, but Burnaby schools ready for functional closures

Education minister Jennifer Whiteside said the threshold to trigger a notification to school communities would be if attendance is 10% below the normal rate for that time of year.

By Srushti Gangdev | January 10, 2022 |5:00 am

School is back in session for K-12 students in Burnaby, in yet another turbulent semester—this time under the shadow of the Omicron COVID variant.

However, health authorities will no longer provide families with any sort of single exposure notification if there is a positive case in a classroom, provincial health officer Dr Bonnie Henry announced Friday. Schools will instead report to districts if attendance falls below “typical rates.”

It comes as school districts are told to prepare plans for ‘functional closures’, in the event that staff at a school fall sick at a rate that makes operations at the school unfeasible.

Education minister Jennifer Whiteside said the threshold to trigger a notification to school communities would be if attendance is 10% below the normal rate for that time of year.

If needed, schools will close and rapid tests will be handed out to symptomatic teachers, and later on, students—but those actions will depend on the school and school district in question.

Whiteside and Henry touted several ‘enhanced safety measures’ put in place in schools, such as virtual assemblies, staggered start times, and daily health checks, as effective in slowing COVID transmission in classrooms.

The province will also continue handing out three-layer disposable masks to anyone who needs them.

“We’ve been in touch with suppliers and working with districts to make sure those supplies are robust and Monday will very much look like a review of what is proper mask-wearing, ensuring they have the proper masks that they need as well as a review of all the additional safety measures that have been brought back into our schools,” Whiteside said.

But when asked why the province wouldn’t be providing N95 respirators to teachers and healthcare workers, and when asked to respond to pushback from aerosol scientists on her claims that N95s are only minimally beneficial compared to cloth or surgical masks, Henry said British Columbians need to “put things into perspective.”

She cited the other measures in place in schools that she said make it ‘unlikely’ that pathogens of any kind will transmit easily—or indeed be present in the classroom at all, thanks to daily health checks.

“You can’t become infected if there’s nobody with the virus in that setting,” she said.

But that’s seemingly in contradiction to other statements Henry has made about the transmissibility of the Omicron variant.

“You can pass it along to others before you even know that you are positive for the virus,” Henry said in a Christmas Eve briefing.

“It replicates quickly. And it means those smaller particles, or aerosols, are much more important and it can spread more easily—especially in activities like singing or talking closely with each other indoors where ventilation is poor or breathing hard.”

Meanwhile, public health has repeatedly said in the past that COVID cases in schools reflect what’s happening in the community—and transmission of Omicron in the community, it need not be said, is extremely high right now.

“We may see more kids showing up in schools with COVID than we did before simply because there is more of it out there,” Whiteside told reporters last Tuesday.

“If there are disruptions due to Omicron, we will make sure they move quickly through the system.”

The Burnaby School District sent a note to families on Friday advising them of the district’s plans if functional closures are necessary. The letter only makes note of the attendance of staff, not of students.

“It’s important to note that schools may not know if they have enough staff until the morning before the school day begins. For that reason, families are asked to check their email messages from the school, as it is possible they will receive a message impacting that school day,” the district said.

Schools will keep track of day-to-day staff attendance, and the district will work with any schools with unusually high numbers of staff off sick. It will also consult with Fraser Health to gain any insight into the situation in the community.

If the district can’t find substitutes to fill the positions of staff who are off, it may declare a functional closure. That information will be posted on the school’s website and emailed to families.

There will be a one-day transition period to allow families and staff to set up for remote learning. In the meantime, the school will communicate with families about an anticipated return to in-person schooling.

Burnaby Teachers Association president Daniel Tétrault told the Beacon that teachers in the city are anxious about yet another school term filled with uncertainty.

“We’re going into a lot of unknowns. We have the known piece of Omicron, knowing that it’s very highly transmissible. But we have the unknown piece—what does that look like in schools?” he said.

“Because we haven’t had Omicron in the schools yet, at least in the way it’s been in the community. That’s the unknown piece and based on the known piece of the transmissibility, that’s a scary proposition. It’s hard to know what was gonna happen.”

The BTA and BC Teachers Federation want more stringent measures put in place for the safety of their members. Tétrault said N95 masks should be made available for staff and students who want to wear them, especially in the face of Henry’s advice that students with COVID-positive family members can continue going to school.

“We can control the ventilation … there are still over 250 classrooms [in Burnaby] that are not connected to the ventilation system, and cannot get MERV13 filters put in. And right now they rely on open doors and windows. But given the freezing temperatures outside, we know it’s gonna be another challenge to have these windows remain open.”

Tétrault also pointed out that enhanced safety measures differ from school to school—so not every school in Burnaby is implementing staggered start times, for instance.

He said with transmission of Omicron as high as it is in the community, it’s a given that it will enter the school system—and he pointed out that schools are not completely controlled environments. Students will still play with each other on the playground and then come back into their classrooms.

“And so we have many of our Burnaby teachers feeling quite anxious and nervous about the unknowns and the transmissibility of Omicron, and how it will play out in schools, and how these functional closures will play out,” he said.

“And this sentiment is mirrored by many families and people in your school community.”

Henry also reinstated a public health order Friday requiring all businesses to have a working COVID safety plan.

Srushti Gangdev

Reporter at Burnaby Beacon

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