DARRYL DYCK/The Canadian Press
As COVID-19 case numbers in British Columbia and Alberta continue to smash records, some parents say they have never felt more anxious and frustrated during the pandemic than they do now, as they contemplate sending their children back to school on Monday.
“I am personally more concerned than I have been earlier in the pandemic,” said Gord Lau, chair of the Vancouver District Parent Advisory Council.
Unlike Ontario, Quebec and several other provinces, which chose to move students to online learning until at least Jan. 17, Alberta and B.C.’s governments decided to start in-person classes on Jan. 10, after extending winter break for a week so schools could develop contingency and safety plans aimed at reducing spread of the Omicron variant of the virus.
But many parents in Canada’s two westernmost provinces say schools are still not equipped for a safe reopening. They point to a lack of enhanced safety measures, low COVID-19 vaccination rates among children 5 to 11, and the fact that many teachers have not yet had vaccine booster shots. All of this, they say, means returning to classrooms will put children and families at risk.
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“I am very frustrated. They essentially are telling all families that have health concerns and kids that have health concerns: We will do nothing for you,” said Vancouver parent Kyenta Martins, who decided not to let her children return to school this week because she has lung disease, which may make her especially vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19 infection.
She, like some other B.C. parents, is calling on the provincial government to provide online-learning options for at-risk families, and to allow children to stay home without losing their spots in schools.
Parents across the province have called for schools to be equipped with HEPA filters, which reduce the amount of potentially harmful particles in indoor air. Parents have also asked for students and staff members to have access to N95, KN95 or equivalent respirators, which experts say offer better protection than other types of face masks.
Alberta parents are making similar demands, according to Brandi Rai, president of the Alberta School Councils’ Association, which represents more than 1,350 school councils in the province.
B.C.’s Ministry of Education said in a statement that strict health and safety measures have helped reduce the spread of COVID-19 in schools since the beginning of the pandemic. Some of the measures that will be used in the province’s schools this week will be familiar, including mask wearing and physical distancing; reconfigured classrooms; and staggered start and stop times for recess, lunch and class transitions.
The statement pointed out 500,000 rapid COVID-19 tests have been set aside for medical health officers to deploy as needed in primary and secondary schools. Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry said Friday that availability of the tests in B.C. schools will expand when supplies increase in mid- to late January.
In Alberta, Education Minister Adriana LaGrange said an initial shipment of masks and test kits will arrive at all schools in the province no later than the end of this week.
Both Dr. Henry and Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, have said N95 masks are not required in schools. Ontario’s Education Ministry has promised to provide students and staff with N95s when in-person classes resume.
In Vancouver, reusable KN95 respirators were distributed to all students and staff at the beginning of the school year, the Vancouver School Board said in a statement.
Teri Mooring, president of the B.C. Teachers Federation, which represents 45,000 public-school educators across the province, said schools are preparing for shutdowns from understaffing, and teachers are frustrated that additional health and safety measures (the union has been demanding access to N95 masks for weeks) have not been implemented.
“We feel a little bit helpless right now,” said Elizabeth Byrne-Lo, who has worked as a teacher in the Vancouver area for 26 years.
Ms. Byrne-Lo decided keep her own two children at home this week.
“Until we get the HEPA filters and we get the MERV 13 [filters] and we get the N95, and we get the rapid testing program up – that’s what will make us all safe in schools,” she said.
“Right now, the plan is let it rip until we can’t any more.”
Ms. Mooring said about half of B.C.’s school districts don’t have MERV 13 filters – a less efficient grade of air filter than HEPA – in their ventilation systems.
She said another thing that has been worrying teachers is the low COVID-19 vaccination rate among children between 5 and 11. In the Vancouver Costal Health region, she said, 53 per cent of children have received their first doses. But in the Northern Health region, the rate is only 23 per cent. In Alberta, 38 per cent of children 5 to 11 have had their first shots.
On Friday, B.C. changed its school exposure notification system. Instead of receiving information about each new COVID-19 outbreak in their schools, families will only be notified of exposures if school attendance dips dramatically below what’s typical.
Kathy Marliss, co-founder of the B.C. School COVID Tracker, a volunteer-run website that collects information on COVID-19 cases in schools, said many parents are disappointed with the move.
“This information is another layer of protection that allows families to make their informed decisions to stay safe,” she said.
Ms. Marliss used to devote more than 12 hours a day to compiling information for the tracker. Now, she said, she anticipates the amount of time she and other parents spend on the volunteer effort will rise exponentially.
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