A group of Nova Scotia parents is expressing concern over how the provincial government issues COVID-19 exposure notifications for schools, saying the process lacks transparency and causes anxiety.
Information about confirmed COVID-19 cases in school settings used to be posted publicly on the Department of Education website.
But with high vaccination rates, evolving epidemiology and schools no longer closing due to a single case as they were last year, staff and families are now being notified of an exposure in writing as part of a six-step process.
Once it is determined who was in close contact with the person who tested positive, a separate letter is prepared for the school to send to close contacts only.
Public Health's direction for the self-isolation of close contacts is based on vaccination status. Students who are fully vaccinated do not need to self-isolate and can continue with regular school activities if they do not have symptoms.
Because of the change in policy, a Facebook group with 19,000 members has taken matters into its own hands, compiling its own list of schools where exposures have been confirmed via a letter.
Parents feel uncertainty, distrust
Stacey Rudderham, an administrator of the group called Nova Scotia Parents for Public Education, said parents are struggling to understand why the province is not posting confirmed school cases publicly online like last year.
"When they [parents] feel this information is being kept from them, it creates a level of uncertainty and distrust, and rumours start flying," said Rudderham, who lives in Fall River, N.S., and has two children in grades 7 and 9.
"Their kids are their priorities. This is their heart and soul that they're putting out there into the schools, and they want to know that the schools are safe and that their kids aren't at risk."
She said there is "very little tolerance for not knowing what's going on with their child when there's something like a global pandemic at hand."
"The government has a paternalistic attitude about what parents need to know or don't need to know. Parents simply need to know. That's it," she said, noting that the public is able to view exposure notifications for places like restaurants, so schools should be no different.
Rudderham pointed to B.C. recently reversing course on notifying parents about COVID-19 exposures at schools after the provincial health officer previously said reporting of single cases caused too much anxiety.
She said parents are also concerned that contact tracing in schools doesn't go far enough. She said in some circumstances, it appears only people that sat in the student's immediate vicinity are considered close contacts.
"Especially with high school students, they're intermingling. The hallways are very crowded and they're in different classrooms with different students every hour," said Rudderham, adding that the Facebook group has grown by more than 2,000 people in the last few weeks.
"It doesn't make sense to me that they're not being a little more open about the cases and they're not making the protocols and policies as clear as they can to parents."
No longer focusing on daily case numbers
A joint statement from the departments of Education and Health said as the province transitions into Phase 5 of its reopening plan, and with high vaccinations rates, "we need to move away from a focus on daily case numbers."
"We understand parents and school communities are anxious about any new cases that appear in schools.... We expect to have cases but with a highly vaccinated population, there is less risk of spread and severe disease," the statement said.
It said Dr. Robert Strang, the province's chief medical officer of health, has indicated he is considering looking at ways to share information regarding the number of COVID-19 cases connected to schools, and more is expected on that next week.
The province also said a news release will be issued if Public Health asks that a school be closed due to COVID-19, or if there is another public health reason to do so.
"One of the reasons for issuing a news release for every case connected to a school last year was to provide another way to make parents and staff aware that the school was closed. That is no longer the case as schools are not being closed for one case," the statement said.
During a media briefing on Sept. 14, Strang reiterated that Public Health is now more focused on patterns of cases rather than individual cases.
He has said schools have not shown themselves to be a major source of transmission within schools, and the province is following the same process it does for other communicable diseases, such as measles, mumps or chickenpox.
The Halifax Regional Centre for Education, where a number of positive COVID-19 cases have been confirmed this school year, said it follows the direction of Public Health.
"We can appreciate this change [in policy] has caused anxiety for some parents," said spokesperson Doug Hadley in an email statement Friday.
"Families should be assured that Public Health will always communicate with those directly impacted and with the larger community if they feel that a wider public notice is necessary."
Nova Scotia is scheduled to enter Phase 5 of its reopening plan on Oct. 4. Masks will be required in Nova Scotia schools until at least Oct. 4, but Strang has said Public Health is continuously reviewing the province's epidemiology.
The Halifax regional centre has said it would continue to require masks for anyone in a school building or on a school bus until Oct. 12.
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