As British Columbia faces the risk of an overwhelmed health-care system, public health officials have reintroduced mandatory COVID-19 safety plan requirements for businesses and announced all students will return to in-person learning Monday.
Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside said today that schools will monitor attendance rates, on a classroom and school-wide basis, so that officials can assess if it’s safe to continue classes.
Schools were only open for children of essential workers this week to allow schools to prepare safety plans and prepare for closures if too many staff are ill to operate the school safely.
Public health will work with schools to monitor attendance rates in order to assess transmission as contact-tracing resources are overwhelmed by the rapidly spreading Omicron variant.
“Schools are a reflection of what happens in the community,” said Whiteside on Friday. “Our schools will be affected by the Omicron variant.”
Some doctors, parents and experts have urged the province to implement remote learning for all students to protect kids and staff from the Omicron variant, which is set to overwhelm hospitals with COVID patients.
But provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry today repeated her assertion that “structured environments” like schools are not risky for COVID-19, despite minimal public data about school exposures, outbreaks and transmission in B.C.
School is “essential, and it’s a priority for all of us,” she said.
While there is some evidence children didn’t spread previous strains of COVID-19 as easily as adults, Omicron’s increased transmissibility means it will pass between kids and from kids to adults much more easily.
Only about 40 per cent of eligible children five to 11 in B.C. have received a single dose of vaccine. And a single dose appears to offer less protection from Omicron, although it does provide protection from serious illness.
Parent Jaclyn Ferreira said Thursday that there are too many unknowns as classes reopen Monday. Ferreira has underlying conditions that put her at higher risk for serious illness if she were to be infected with COVID-19, which is why she kept her three children home from their Vancouver schools when remote learning options were available last year.
The problem is “not knowing what we’re sending our kids into,” she said. “We can’t make accurate risk assessments.”
Ferreira pointed out that many children that young also won’t know they have underlying health conditions that put them at risk of serious illness.
Children are also still at risk of developing post-viral complications, known as long COVID, even if their infection is mild at the beginning.
And many experts say a classroom is no different than other risky settings where people are in close quarters with little ventilation and inadequate masks.
Henry has downplayed the importance of N95 masks for teachers, which the province is not providing, and suggested that teachers and students wear cloth masks over three-layer surgical masks to improve fit. The province will be providing three-layer masks, she said.
Colin Furness, an expert in infection control epidemiology at the University of Toronto, said the current measures aren’t enough in a Thursday briefing with advocacy collective Protect Our Province, which describes itself as “a grassroots group of physicians, nurses, health scientists, health policy specialists and community advocates.”
“We’ve got really, really unsafe schools,” Furness said.
“Right now, we are seeing transmission everywhere, it is fully in the air,” he added. “If you don’t believe it, wait a couple weeks and open schools and that would be a terrible way to find out.”
The group is calling on the province to delay a return to in-person learning while Omicron is controlled, provide N95 masks to teachers upon return and make rapid tests widely available to teachers, students and their families.
Henry said today more rapid tests will be provided in schools and for families to take home when supply arrives later this month.
Despite sombre opening remarks about a “challenging month” ahead, Henry’s statement and answers to the media did not detail any new major measures to stop the predicted overwhelm of B.C.’s hospitals.
Non-emergency surgeries have already been postponed, as they were during the previous hospitalization peak of 515 COVID patients in April. There are currently 324 people in hospital with COVID-19.
Henry said there are plans to deal with a shortage of health-care workers caused by Omicron. Workers could be called back from vacation and time off, and some who are infected but well enough to work could be assigned to COVID-19 patients.
“This is a last resort,” said Henry. “We of course do not want to have people who are ill working.”
Moira Wyton, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Tyee