Concerns about British Columbia’s yet-to-be-released school reopening plans are growing as the Delta variant surges and children under 12 remain ineligible for vaccination.
The province, which hasn’t published its plan, has said this school year will look nearly normal, without the cohorts and remote learning options students had last year.
But parents, the BC Teachers’ Federation and some experts say the province needs to mandate masks and improve ventilation in classrooms to keep students and staff alike safe.
“It’s much easier to start with a mandate rather than impose it partway through the year after people have gotten sick,” said BCTF president Teri Mooring in an interview.
“We don’t want to see schools close or students isolate and spend weeks out of school because we didn’t do enough in the first place.”
The BCTF is calling for mandatory masks for all students under 12 and the staff working with them, as well as vaccine clinics at schools and timely data on the number of exposure and transmission events in schools.
And this week the BC Greens also called for more measures to protect those in schools, including adding remote learning options, cohorts to limit contact with other students and better ventilation and HEPA filtration for classrooms.
According to B.C.’s limited public data, there was very little in-school transmission last year and most in-school exposures were cases acquired in the community.
But daily case numbers now are nearly five times what they were when students returned to school last year, despite more than 82 per cent of those eligible having at least one vaccine shot.
And the more transmissible Delta variant, which can also affect the vaccinated, means last year is not a good blueprint for this year’s planning, an expert modelling group warned Wednesday.
“Exposures in schools will likely be higher with higher community transmission,” says the report from the BC COVID-19 Modelling Group. “Transmission within schools could increase sharply without control measures in place, and because of Delta.”
Children are less likely to become seriously ill or die from COVID-19, but they can still require hospitalization and develop Long-COVID symptoms or permanent disabilities from infection.
And the United States is already seeing thousands of students and teachers forced to isolate due to COVID-19 in the first weeks of its school year.
B.C.’s current fourth wave, driven by eased public health restrictions and the Delta variant, has mostly affected the unvaccinated. According to the most recent data, about three-quarters of cases and nearly all people in hospital were only partially vaccinated or hadn’t had a shot at all.
Vaccinated people are 10 times less likely to spread or become infected by the virus, and rarely end up in hospital or with serious illness.
Children under 10, nine per cent of the population, currently make up about 36 per cent of the unvaccinated population. The vaccination rate for teens is the lowest of any age group. About 70 per cent of people 12 to 17 have had at least one shot.
Dr. Brian Conway of the Vancouver Infectious Diseases Centre said increasing vaccination rates among those eligible in the school system should be the priority to ensure a positive learning experience for students and teachers.
“You cannot get COVID-19 from someone who doesn’t have it, and so we should surround students with double-vaccinated people,” said Conway, the centre’s medical director.
“We need people to be vaccinated, and I think that’s where I would put an emphasis.”
While the measures introduced last year to curb the spread in schools were needed at the time, the disruptions to learning and students’ wellness were undeniable, Conway said.
And with the current variant and public health strategy, there is no COVID-zero reality in the near future, he added.
Masking indoors should be considered, especially for younger students not yet eligible for the vaccine, but he expects kids to be resilient and adapt to what is needed to stay safe and in the classroom as the broader pandemic changes.
The province is currently considering mandatory vaccines for teachers and other public sector employees, including healthcare workers.
Mooring said the BCTF’s data shows teachers are not vaccine-hesitant, and the union has not called for mandatory vaccines for teachers.
Mooring fears teachers have low morale after a year of teaching and enforcing public health measures in their classrooms.
Starting with strong prevention measures could help make them seem more normal for students, and keep children safe.
“There is a lot of concern from parents and teachers coming into this new school year and concerns from last year,” said Mooring. “We haven’t had students together since Delta, and we don’t know how transmissible it will be in schools.”
“Given the unknowns, it’s prudent to start with more measures and then pull back as necessary.”