Return to school brings feelings of uncertainty for Burnaby school staff (Shuttertock)

“I don’t think we’re in a very good place”: the uncertainty of COVID and the return to school

This school year brings many unknowns with continued with high case counts and the highly infectious Delta variant.

By Simran Singh | September 7, 2021 |5:00 am

Teachers, school staff, and students in Burnaby and across the province will be heading back to classrooms today, and this year brings many unknowns with continued with high case counts and the highly infectious Delta variant.

Burnaby elementary school teacher Jennifer Heighton told the Beacon that, despite feeling excited about being back with students, she has concerns about returning to the classroom around COVID safety measures

“I do think the province should be doing more,” Heighton said.

Her comments come after BC’s latest epidemiological modelling presented by provincial health officer Dr Bonnie Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix last week.

Overall, the modelling data for September showed an increase in both cases and hospitalizations in both lower and moderate transmission scenarios, “but not at the rate that we were seeing our daily maximum during the 2nd and 3rd waves of the pandemic, and that’s because of the protection we’re seeing from immunization,” said Henry.

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A graph modelling moderate transmission scenario (BCCDC)

She also stressed that getting more people vaccinated in younger age groups, particularly those between 12-17 and 20-30, can “make a tremendous difference in the trajectory of our pandemic in the next month,” which would result in decreasing cases and hospitalizations.

Henry acknowledged the increase in the 0-11 age group but said these were young people in communities and families where the adults in their lives have not been immunized.

Risk of transmission

But Heighton pointed out that the risk of spreading the virus remains in the classroom.

“Because those [students in] kindergarten to Grade 3 are not vaccinated, as well as grades 4, 5, or 6,” she said. Currently, only children 12 and over are eligible to receive the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

Heighton added that as per the province’s back-to-school guidelines, kindergarten to Grade 3 students will not be required to wear masks, there are no longer “strict” distancing protocols, and the cohort system is no longer in effect. All of these factors mean transmission is still a prevalent concern in schools, she added.

“Even in their own Fraser Health document that came out in the spring and covered from January to March, it showed cases spreading from student to student,” she said, referring to a leaked COVID report that came to light in early May.

As the Beacon’s Srushti Gangdev reported, the leaked document included more detailed information than what was previously released about the number of in-school transmissions in the Fraser Health region during a case study that took place between Jan 1 and March 7. It found there were 2,049 COVID cases “associated with schools in that time period and 238 cases were the result of in-school transmission.”

At the time, BC Teachers Federation president Teri Mooring said the leaked data proved to be a “lack of an honest approach” in the province’s pandemic response.

School transmission

In August, Fraser Health released a study examining cases of COVID reported between January and June 2021 to “better understand the extent and nature of in-school transmission” in Surrey, which saw some of the highest infection rates in the province throughout the winter and spring.

As Peace Arch News reported, based on Twitter school exposure notices from the district, there were over 1,500 exposures in Surrey schools during the 2020-21 school year.

The Fraser Health study, however, highlighted that 90% of school-associated COVID cases in Surrey originated in households or in the community.

“Trends in school cases tend to match those in the community. Cases increased in late February and peaked in mid-to-late April. School-associated COVID-19 cases among ages 18 and over decreased with the availability of the vaccine,” noted the study.

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Fraser Health’s study examining school transmission between January and June (Fraser Health)

The data noted the “decline in cases [was] less notable for younger age groups, however, community incidence had declined as students age 12-17 were able to receive their first dose.”

A missing factor from the study was the impact of the Delta variant as it was not yet prevalent in the community during the time period of the study.

Walking into the unknown

The potential impacts Delta variant and how it will impact in-school transmission is the driving force behind the unknowns of the upcoming school year.

According to the BC COVID Modelling Group’s September report, the Delta variant accounts for 98% of cases in BC. The report did highlight the mandates and public response to rising cases have slowed down the spread of the virus around the province. However, transmission rates are changing due to mask mandates expanding and school reopening.

In last week’s modelling presentation, Henry said she had been in touch with her US counterparts at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) regarding the return to school process there.

In August, the number of children hospitalized with COVID in the US hit a record high.

As The New York Times reports, “the vaccines are effective against Delta—and provide powerful protection against severe disease and death—but children under 12 are not yet eligible for them. So as more and more adults get vaccinated, children make up an increasing share of COVID cases.”

Henry said they are trying to understand the rates of severe illness and hospitalization in kids. “It really looks like it’s a function of immunization in the community and where you have rates of transmission that are really high, it affects young people as well as older people,” she said.

“It doesn’t seem to be virulence—so the Delta variant which is the predominant variant being transmitted across the US. It’s hard to tease out a number of factors, but it’s really related to areas where there’s lower immunization; they’re seeing higher rates of cases in the community, including higher rates of cases in children. That’s something that we’re seeing reflected in our data as well and reassures us that it’s not something that’s inherent in the virus right now. It’s more about how important it is that we all protect those who cannot be immunized,” she said.

No more single exposure notices

Henry revealed a change to COVID exposure reporting in schools. There will be no notifications sent out to the school community when there has been a single exposure event, which is defined as an individual with a lab-confirmed COVID-19 infection who attended school during the time they were infectious.

“They’ll be doing an assessment as we do for every communicable disease, and every individual who is at risk will be notified,” she stated. “We’ve heard very clearly from people that the majority of people felt that the school-based letters were more anxiety-provoking than helpful. But we will absolutely be keeping the schools informed, working with the schools, with our school response teams, to make sure that every single case in the school setting is identified [and ] the contacts are managed.”

Henry confirmed that every cluster and outbreak will be reported.

Heighton said this will “make things extremely difficult” in the classroom and said she disagreed that the letters were anxiety-provoking.

“They are actually helpful for families and staff to know that there might have been a case in their class,” she said.

Burnaby Beacon followed up with education minister Jennifer Whiteside last week and asked her why this decision was made.

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Education minister Jennifer Whiteside took the Beacon’s questions last week (Flickr/ Gov Bc)

“What I understand public health is looking to do is shift to a communicable disease approach which doesn’t involve mass notifications going out. […] Dr Henry has indicated that public health has not anticipated the need for the kind of notification process we had in place next year,” she said.

Daniel Tétrault, president of the Burnaby Teachers Association, said the decision to end the single-exposure notices will in turn create anxiety among families.

“I would say that the more transparency and information that is shared with teachers, staff, students, and families, the better,” he said.

“And so we found last year, when information wasn’t shared, or there wasn’t transparency, that actually created more anxiety. So I don’t agree. I don’t agree with the feeling that this exposure, like the letters, creates anxiety among families. I think the lack of sharing of information or lack of transparency actually creates more anxiety.”

What are the solutions?

Last Wednesday, BCTF president Teri Mooring published an open letter to parents, highlighting that the government-mandated mask requirement for grades 4 to 12 is “not enough to keep everyone safe.”

Mooring said the BCTF is encouraging everyone who is eligible to get vaccinated.

“It’s important that everyone from all our communities in BC take this important step to help better protect those children who are not yet eligible for vaccinations,” she said.

During the modelling press conference, Henry was asked why the province was not mandating vaccinations for all school staff and students 12 and over, Henry said that “mandating any medical procedure is something we don’t do lightly. We look at the risk and we do it proportional to risk.”

Heighton acknowledged that mandatory vaccinations in the school system could help but also pointed to an elementary school setting where the majority of kids are under 12 and cannot be vaccinated.

She stressed the importance of upgrading ventilation systems in schools, which she feels hasn’t been adequately addressed by the province.

According to the province, $87 million has been invested into improving ventilation systems in districts around the province. Last month, Whiteside said 44 out of BC’s 60 school districts had upgraded their HVAC systems.

BC’s COVID-19 Communicable Disease Guideline for K-12 Settings states districts and independent school authorities are recommended to upgrade current filters to a minimum MERV (minimum efficiency reporting value) 13 filter or higher. The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers rates filters based on their MERV value, which ranges from 1 to 20, and measures the filter’s ability to capture particles between 0.3 and 10 microns.

But Heighton said there is a lack of transparency of where and when these upgrades have been made, which is a “major concern.”

Not in a “good place”

Tétrault agreed and said there are about 250 older classrooms in Burnaby alone that need upgrades and are not connected to ventilation systems, adding that last year,  these spaces “were only depending on opening doors and windows for ventilation.”

The Beacon asked the Ministry of Education how many of BC’s public schools have completed a thorough assessment for proper ventilation systems in time for the beginning of this school year.

The ministry said there are over 1,500 schools in BC and “100% of them have conducted regular inspection and maintenance of HVAC systems this year.”

The Beacon also asked Whiteside for a timeline for when all ventilation upgrades would be made where applicable in schools.

Whiteside said it is an “ongoing process.”

“I can say that I have had a chance over the last week or so to talk to a number of different school districts who all employ the vast majority of school districts employ … professional facilities managers. They have teams of staff who are engaged in this work every day. They are consulting with engineers for what is best for the building they are dealing with,” she said.

She added districts are also identifying and reviewing the “very small number” of classrooms that may not be connected to HVAC systems.

For Heighton, that’s simply not enough to ensure classroom safety.

“I don’t think we’re in a very good place with less mitigations than we had last year,” she said.

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Simran Singh

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