Discovery of COVID-19 variant in B.C. schools creates concern in capital region

As the Fraser Health Authority responds to a fast-spreading COVID-19 variant in its schools, capital region officials are keeping a close eye on the situation.

Greater Victoria Teachers’ Association president Winona Waldron said the news about a COVID-19 variant in a school setting is “concerning.” Health officials say testing so far indicates the cases are linked to the variant first identified in the United Kingdom.

“We’re already seeing increased exposures in our schools, so this just further exacerbates that situation and adds to that anxiety,” she said.

While mask-wearing rules at schools have been tightened recently, Waldron said she would like to see them even more stringent.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry announced mandatory mask guidelines this month for students in middle and high schools.

B.C. Teachers’ Federation president Teri Mooring said she doesn’t agree with the current directive, which does not require students to wear masks at their desks. Henry has said that’s the same as in offices or restaurants, but Mooring said students sit close together and the other environments don’t compare well with schools.

Mooring said she would like to see masks mandatory for ages 10 and up, and possibly a system where students in hard-hit schools don’t attend full-day classes.

School districts should have the flexibility to require students to wear masks because a provincewide directive does not take into account regions that are experiencing a high number of cases and now variants as well, Mooring said.

“It’s become really clear that some schools within districts are much harder hit than others,” she said.

Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside said Monday the variant had been detected at one school in Delta and six in Surrey. Rapid testing was done Sunday and Monday, she said, with all 35 Surrey School District staff tested Sunday found to be negative for COVID-19.

“Cases in schools mirror what is happening in our communities, so it was always a possibility that we would see variant exposures in schools,” Whiteside said.

She noted that testing showed the first variant found in a school did not lead to any transmissions. “What that says to us is that our health and safety protocols are working.”

Deputy provincial health officer Dr. Reka Gustafson said the policy on masks in schools is based on the ability of individuals to comply with it and there are no plans to make any changes.

She said testing is one of the most important tools for managing COVID-19, and the province has begun using a new technology that allows for variant screening. The increased screening led to the detection of more variants, she said.

Saanich School District superintendent Dave Eberwein said it is important to listen to what is said by provincial authorities.

“We make sure we continue to follow the advice of the health officer and the minister of education,” he said. “Of course, we’re keeping an eye on things to make sure that our schools, our students and our staff are safe.”

Recent school exposures on Vancouver Island include:

• Ladysmith Secondary, with exposures on Feb. 8-10 and Feb. 16-18

• Glacier View Secondary in Courtenay, Feb. 17-18

• Aspengrove School in Lantzville, Feb. 18-19

• Chemainus Secondary, Feb. 8 and Feb. 16-18

• Timberline Secondary in Campbell River, Feb. 17-18

• Glanford Middle School in Saanich, Feb. 8-11 and Feb. 17

• Queneesh Elementary in Courtenay, Feb. 17

• Georges P. Vanier Secondary in Courtenay, Feb. 16-17

• Carihi Secondary in Campbell River, Feb. 10-11 and Feb. 16-17

According to Island Health, anyone who may have had a high-risk exposure will be contacted by public health and instructed to self-isolate. Those are not contacted should continue to attend school as long as they are not experiencing any symptoms.

A joint statement from Henry and Health Minister Adrian Dix said there are 28 new confirmed cases of variants of concern, for a total of 101. Fifty-eight of those were found in the Fraser Health region.

A total of 1,428 COVID-19 cases were confirmed in B.C. since Friday, including 99 in the Island Health region.

jbell@timescolonist.com

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