B.C. schools’ COVID-19 safety protocols are once again under scrutiny after 13 classes were sent into self-isolation at Semiahmoo Trail Elementary in South Surrey.
While the Surrey School District and Surrey Teachers Association would not confirm a report that it was a staff member – not included in the school’s cohort system – who tested positive for COVID-19 before Fraser Health issued isolation notices, it has confirmed that one exposure notice resulted in members of 13 classes being sent to self-isolation.
The incident has reopened questions about whether the provincial health and safety protocols, particularly relating to the cohort system, are sufficient to protect students and their families.
A parent of one of the students who was sent to self-isolation contacted Peace Arch News asking whether the cohort system is effective, considering that librarians, instructors who teach specialty subjects, such as French and music, and substitute teachers are excluded.
District communications manager Ritinder Matthew said the district is continuing to follow provincial guidance and work with its regional health authority to review exposures. Protocols include wearing masks in all indoor spaces for K-12 staff, and students in Grades 4-12. Students are also to stay within their cohort, practice regular hand washing and maintain distance from one another wherever possible.
Additionally, staff who work across multiple cohorts must maintain distance. If that’s not possible, other measures are explored, including re-configuring rooms, securing an alternate space to allow for physical distancing, installing a physical barrier or providing virtual services where possible, Matthew said.
However, non-cohort teachers and librarians can see hundreds of students per week, said Surrey Teacher Association president Matt Westphal.
Westphal, who said he cannot speak to specifics of Semiahmoo Trail Elementary, raised concerns about the cohort system.
“We all know that the cohorts don’t, themselves, do a whole lot. From the start there’s people that have to work with a bunch of different cohorts,” Westphal said.
“There’s always been people who have to work with large numbers of students. The question is, how can we make sure those interactions are safe?”
Westphal said one of the “gaps” in the layer of protection is that children in Grade 3 and under aren’t required to wear masks. He spoke, as well, of frustrations with the province’s delay in mandating masks for students Grade 4 and above.
“There was so much resistance based on a simplistic view that young children can’t wear masks, they will fiddle with them, which is simply not accurate,” he said. “Another thing we were pushing for was Plexiglas barriers.”
Matthew said such barriers are put in place depending on the specific classroom.
“It depends on what the configuration is, if physical distancing cannot be maintained,” Matthew said, adding that the district’s health and safety department worked with each school on the configurations.
Still, Westphal said not all teachers who are excluded from the cohort system are protected by the see-through barriers. Further, he said there’s a “built-in delay” with obtaining such devices.
“As long as you have a certain distance, even if you work with multiple grouping and cohorts, that was considered good enough for safety sake,” Westphal said.
While the Surrey School District does not collect private health information from staff, it said that almost 90 percent of school-based staff booked a COVID-19 vaccination appointment when it was offered by the district and Fraser Health. The district also had a number of staff attend “catch-up clinics” that Fraser Health made available to staff in subsequent weeks.
This week, the province announced vaccination of children aged 12 and up will soon get underway in B.C.
And while more people are getting their dose, Westphal said he still has some concerns.
“We’re still seeing cases show up and people get sick even if they’ve been vaccinated, so that’s not a guarantee,” he said.
“That’s why we continue to push for better safety measures now, but also into September. I think it would be very unfortunate if everyone just assumed that well, with vaccinations, we will all be good to be back to normal in September, because we don’t know that.”