A new provincial “rapid response team” will take the lead on combatting COVID-19 in B.C. schools.
Dr. Bonnie Henry addressed the issue at a press conference held Nov. 19 to announce sweeping new health orders across the province. She told reporters she has put one of her deputies in charge of the school situation.
The new team will be focused on the Fraser Health and Vancouver Coastal Health regions, where school exposures have been increasing quickly in the past couple of weeks. The deputy will work with those regions to take a “coordinated approach to identifying and managing school exposures and outbreaks quickly, and to improve our ability to communicate and to manage these events together with our school communities,” Henry said.
The announcement comes against the backdrop of growing concern over the rising number of COVID-19 exposures in schools and the length of time it’s taking for families to be notified of those exposures.
“It’s important for us to keep schools open. We know that schools are an important, safe place for children around this province,” Henry said.
Questioned whether a school shutdown could be in the cards, Henry said: “We are not at the point where we would consider closing schools. We know that we have to do our best in the community so we can protect the essential work that’s going on in our schools.”
She also continued to deliver the message that schools have not been a major source of COVID-19 transmission.
“Transmission in schools has been low, but we have had many, many more exposure events from the adults and the students in our school settings,” she said. “I’m also hearing that this is concerning. This is concerning to our parents, to teachers, to all of us in the school community, and we need to make sure that we can keep up and that everybody is informed as best as possible.”
Henry reiterated, as she has throughout the fall, that the best way to manage exposures in schools is to manage COVID-19 in the wider community. She said the new health orders are designed to help protect all the province’s priorities, including schools.
She reminded parents and caregivers that they have a role to play in controlling COVID-19 exposures in schools by not mingling at school drop-off and pickup and by managing their family’s out-of-school interactions.
“We need to urgently reduce the level of transmissions and our cases across the province in these next two weeks,” she said.
But she didn’t do one thing many teachers have been calling for – and that’s to make masks mandatory in classrooms.
Asked why masks wouldn’t be mandated in schools when they’re required in other public settings, she drew a distinction between schools and locations such as retail stores.
“Schools are not public, open spaces. You can not go walk into a school,” she said. “We have layers of measures of protection in place in schools, and like I wouldn’t wear a mask sitting at my office, we don’t expect children to wear masks sitting at their desks all day long.”
Henry pointed out masks are expected in common areas where children and adults mingle, and those expectations are laid out in safety plans that are in place at all B.C. schools.
Another idea that has been floated regarding COVID-19 in schools has been the possibility of extending the winter break to help slow the spread of the virus.
Henry said that idea is still being discussed.
“There’s pros and cons … on doing that, and there’s implications on a variety of different parts of our community. That decision has not been made yet,” she said.
A visibly emotional Henry called on British Columbia’s young people to continue their work in the joint effort against COVID-19.
“I know how difficult this has been for you and the impact on your lives. I know you have been missing birthdays and graduations and celebrations of these important transitional moments in your lives,” she said. “I also know you have been role models and inspirations. Young people have proven that they have resilience, that you’re adaptable and that you’re brave, and I’m calling on all of you right now. I need you. I need you to be superheroes - to step up to hold the line and to help all of us get through this.”
She also expressed her gratitude for teachers.
“I so admire our teachers and educators and the work that they’ve been doing to make sure children have that learning experience that is so critical for them at this point in their lives,” she said. “We need to celebrate and support the work that they’re doing. Part of these orders is to make sure we can continue to do that.”
The B.C. Teachers' Federation remains unconvinced.
“The provincial health office and #bcpoli leaders continue to assure #bced that schools are safe,” the union tweeted this morning. “That assurance, however, is not easing the anxiety, stress and worry. We need to see more detailed data and clearer communication. The lag time in contact tracing creates real doubt.”
The Provincial Health Office and #bcpoli leaders continue to assure #bced that schools are safe. That assurance, however, is not easing the anxiety, stress, and worry. We need to see more detailed data and clearer communication. The lag times in contact tracing creates real doubt— BCTF (@bctf) November 20, 2020
Exposure events by the hundreds and proven in-school transmissions have heightened fears in places where physical distancing is not possible. It's time for the PHO and #bcpoli leaders to put more transparent information and clear rationale for inconsistent orders out to #bced.— BCTF (@bctf) November 20, 2020