Parents desperate for data on school COVID cases

·3 min read

Increasingly non-specific notices sent to parents after a COVID-19 case is identified in a classroom and the province’s halt in reporting those exposures are frustrating families who want to be in the know.

It’s been more than a month since Manitoba posted a school’s letter to parents on its running tally of exposures online, yet there were 74 new cases among students and 11 among staff during the first two weeks of 2021.

Since the start of the school year, there have been 2,272 confirmed cases related to K-12 schools in the province.

“This is a once-in-a-century pandemic, during which parents are putting their trust in the government and sending their kids to school because it is a foundation of community,” said Shraddha Pai, the lead and founder of the Canada COVID-19 School Tracker.

“The government owes parents transparency.”

Pai, a K-12 parent and Toronto-based researcher who studies genomics and data science, has been mapping cases in classrooms across the country since Labour Day.

Manitoba is the latest province to complicate the collection of school case data, she said, adding “it’s been a battle” to obtain information from Quebec, Alberta and B.C. She considers Ontario to be the gold standard: not only does the province publish school cases, it also requires school divisions do the same.

Boards and schools are required to create a COVID-19 advisory section on their websites and “clearly” post updates on confirmed cases, including notices of any class, cohort or school closure. No personal information is released to protect individual privacy.

In Manitoba, few divisions and independent schools are voluntarily posting letters or school-by-school case tallies.

In early January, the province published a school case notification tool kit with details on how to determine if an individual was infectious at school and record and share information with families using new templates.

The outlines, which replace autumn public-health notices stamped with a health region logo and signed by a medical officer, allow administrators to plug in data about exposure times and cohorts. That information can be vague.

Balmoral Hall School issued a notice Thursday to its community about a positive case but it contained few details, saying only a deep-clean occurred and no close contacts were identified at the school.

“I would really like to know which cohort it was in and which days the child was in class, like we used to (receive in letters),” said one parent, who spoke to the Free Press on the condition of anonymity to protect their daughter’s identity.

“The lack of information creates anxiety — it really, really does.”

Just because a COVID-positive student isn’t in the same class, doesn’t mean others won’t be exposed, she said.

Teachers who teach children who go to the same school might become ill and the virus could spread that way.

There are also siblings in different classes and grades, and students may intermingle at recess, lunch and at other times, she said, adding that without details, families gossip amongst themselves.

Balmoral Hall administration directed a reporter to the province’s tool kit Friday.

A provincial spokesperson declined to say why schools may withhold information, including dates. The spokesperson instead noted a change in how information is shared with communities, while adding the province is revising how it delivers updates on school exposures, outbreaks and closures.

“It’s a slippery slope to reduce data transparency,” Pai said. “Today, it’s going to be school cases. Tomorrow, it can be something else.”

The national school-tracker scientist said parents are owed information about school cases so they can make decisions about sending kids to class and know whether they need to pressure school trustees and governments to implement safer school policies.

Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Winnipeg Free Press