At least 56 COVID-19 exposures in the Surrey School District prompt calls for changes to safety protocols

·3 min read

A little more than a month after schools around B.C. opened their doors, Sept. 10, to staff and students, the Surrey School District is reporting at least 56 COVID-19 exposure events at different schools and district offices. Surrey school superintendent Jordan Tinney said in a school district where there are nearly 85,000 staff and students and COVID-19 is present in the community, cases being brought into schools are inevitable.

"These are infections coming in to the school. These are not cases emerging from a school ... COVID is in our community, this is about living with it. It is going to be in our schools," Tinney said.

He said he expects by Remembrance Day, his district could see total cases rise to 100, possibly 200 by Jan. 1, 2021.

Surrey teachers ask for change in safety practices

Matt Westphal, the president of the Surrey Teachers Association, said the numbers show the magnitude of the problem that Surrey is facing and the challenges the federation believes exists with current health and safety plans in schools.

Provincially, Westphal said, teachers have asked for help since July and have asked the province for COVID-19 safety plans that see fewer students in classrooms, but they haven't seen that become the case for all classes.

"We've been pushing for a mask mandate that'll be stronger, so it'll be safer for people, given what we know about how effective masks can be," Westphal said.

He said the school district is behind in Surrey when it comes to plexiglass. He said it would have been good to have had it in schools right as they opened in September, but he said the conversation about it arose after the doors opened.

We're hearing a full gamut of mental health challenges people are having - Matt Westphal, president of the Surrey Teachers Association

Westphal said he's seen a significant increase in mental health concerns coming from staff in Surrey schools and he wants the district to intervene with new safety protocols as concerns grow about how staff and teachers will survive an already challenging year.

"We're hearing a full gamut of mental health challenges people are having. Absolutely anxiety, [and] we're hearing about people who are feeling depressed, people who describe just a month into school feeling exhausted; normally the way they would feel in June," Westphal said.

Westphal said teachers are tasked with being privy to very sensitive information on a daily basis and they want to be afforded the ability to know whether their own classrooms have experienced exposures. He said this would ease anxieties around exposures, even if students or staff themselves are not identified as testing positive.

Right now, Fraser Health contacts a school to let it know there's been a positive test on site but no indication as to which classroom or age bracket. It then proceeds to contact those who may have been in close contact or are deemed to be at risk.

Enzo Zanatta / CBC News
Enzo Zanatta / CBC News

Chris Stolz has been teaching at Tamanawis Secondary for more than two decades and he said the 56 cases in the first month of school worry him.

"On the downside ... we've had a case per week at our school. On the upside, we're seeing very good hygiene practices ... and everybody in our building is wearing a mask. So, the community is doing what it's supposed to do," Stolz said.

Westphal said in lieu of no provincial mask mandate in schools, he's urging staff and students to consider wearing their masks whenever possible on school properties.

For Stolz, it's a simple ask and one he is directing right at B.C.'s provincial health officer.

"Dr. Bonnie Henry, can we please have a provincial mask mandate," said Stolz.