Keeping B.C. schools open without better COVID-19 protections is a recipe for disaster, a coalition of advocates says.
“We’re in a bad situation now, opening school while we have BA.5 circulating, a variant that is more transmissible and that also is not blocked by antibodies that we have developed from either infection or vaccination,” said Dr. Lyne Filiatrault, a former ER physician and New Westminster resident who's with the Protect Our Province B.C. coalition.
“There’s a way of reopening schools. We want to keep them open in the least disruptive way for parents and the kids. To do this, we can’t ignore that COVID is circulating in the community, that we’ve got a more transmissible variant, and that we’ve got no mitigation measures.”
Protect Our Province is calling on the B.C. government to implement what it’s calling a “SMART” approach to schools, based on what has worked in other jurisdictions:
- Stay home when symptomatic
- Mask up (N95, KN95 or KF94)
- Air cleaners in every classroom
- Refresh indoor air
- Test, Trace and Isolate policies (based on aerosol spread).
Of those measures, the first — the directive to stay home while symptomatic — is already in place.
Of the others, Filiatrault said she’d like to see the province start with the simplest: a renewed mask policy.
Coalition calls for universal masking in B.C. schools
“We’re making people feel that if they’re masking, they’ve got a problem because they’re anxious,” Filiatrault said, noting that, in fact, the people who mask tend to be the ones who’ve read more extensively on COVID-19 and understand the risks. “Masking is an easy one when we have high community transmission, and believe me, we do.”
Making masking a personal choice, in her mind, simply isn’t good enough.
“We’ve shifted the responsibility onto 10-year-olds now to keep their mask on. Really? Seriously?” she said.
Jennifer Heighton, an elementary school teacher who’s also with Protect Our Province, notes a return to universal masking would help minimize disruption in classrooms by cutting down on illness amongst students, families and staff.
“If you reduce the transmission with universal masking, it helps keep schools operating at a much higher level than a rotating door of sickness going through the classroom,” she said.
“Some people would say, do we have to mask forever? I would say we should mask until we’re able to get it under control with cleaner air,” she said.
COVID safety in schools: HEPA filtration, air quality monitoring
Another key area of concern, in light of aerosol transmission, is the air in classrooms.
Heighton pointed out that, even in classrooms connected to mechanical ventilation systems, HEPA filtration helps to clean the air closer to the source.
“If there’s somebody in the classroom who happens to be infectious, and the air is being cleaned right there instead of in the ducts somewhere, that helps,” she said.
She’d like to see the province explore new technologies such as UV-C sanitizing — and, in the immediate term, install HEPA filters in all classrooms that don’t already have them.
Heighton pointed out the cost of HEPA filtration units is relatively low balanced against the cost of staff sick days.
“In terms of costs, really, when a bunch of staff are sick, that’s a lot of sick days, and that’s a lot of staff to cover,” she said, noting school districts in B.C. have been hit with higher costs for fill-in staff. “How many HEPA filtration units would that have bought?”
Filiatrault pointed out that other simple measures, such as CO2 monitors, can help teachers track how much fresh air exchange is happening in a classroom. When levels get high, they can open windows, go outside or just take a break from the classroom to change the air in the room.
Truly monitoring air quality, she said, requires more than simply installing MERV-13 filters in HVAC systems; it means tracking the air live, in real time.
“You spend 90 per cent of your time indoors — for kids, it’s in school — and we don’t monitor the air quality? Go figure,” she said.
Plus, she said, improving air quality isn’t just about COVID.
“If you improve the air, you decrease the number of allergies, you decrease the number of colds, flus, and you improve the concentration of kids, their focus,” she said. “We need to address the air. Everybody can agree it’s a win-win-win.”
Start with masks and air, she said, and the rest will follow.
“If you do those two things and we work on the rest, those are win-win,” she said.
Safe schools is a question of equity
For both Heighton and Filitrault, keeping schools safe is a question of inclusivity.
Heighton said schools already do a great deal to ensure schools are inclusive for at-risk children — using the example of peanut-free policies to protect those with anaphylactic allergies. She said the same principle needs to apply to school attendance for those children who are immune-compromised or who have immune-compromised family members.
“There’s so many. It could be kids with asthma, diabetes; a family member at home who’s going through cancer treatment; they’re living with an elderly grandparent,” she said. “There’s a lot of factors where people need to take extra care. Why should they be worrying about sending their child to school when they could have extra risk?
“What’s happening right now is an exclusionary situation, where some families are feeling like they’re forced to keep their kids home and have to home-school instead of being able to send their kids in person.”
Filitrault pointed out schools aren’t isolated from the communities around them.
“When your kid goes to school, he brings his big brother’s risk, he brings his parents’ occupational risk, and when he brings it back home, he brings it to his extended family and their connections in the community,” she said.
“Kids bring COVID back home. They will infect their parents, who will go to work and infect their colleagues. They will bring back COVID in the workplace and into the community.
“COVID does not stop at the door of the school. It’s bidirectional transmission: it goes in, it comes out.”
All of that, Filiatrault said, means we won’t get COVID-19 under control unless and until we address the situation in schools.
“I don’t know how we get out of this without really controlling COVID, because right now it’s COVID that’s controlling our lives,” she said. “COVID is here to stay. Until we understand what we need to do and we all do our part, it’s going to control us — and it’s going to keep evolving worse.”