Island Health warns of ‘significant’ school exposures to come as province widens mask mandate

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
WatchVancouver Island's health authority says with students returning from spring break, expect to see school exposures on the rise in the coming weeks.
File photo.

Vancouver Island’s health authority says with students returning from spring break, expect to see school exposures on the rise in the coming weeks.

A letter sent from Island Health to various school districts on March 28 warns that the region has been “experiencing a higher number of coronavirus cases in the past few weeks,” many of which have reported higher-than-normal social contacts while infectious.

“Accordingly, we are now seeing the number of children with coronavirus on the rise,” Island Health said. “All signs indicate that there will be significant numbers of exposures at schools in the weeks to come.”

As such, the health authority is asking parents and guardians to remind their kids of proper safety protocols, including frequent hand-washing, physical distancing and mask-wearing.

 “I think we’re all a little worried about what’s happening in the community right now,” said Scott Stinson, Superintendent of School District 62.

On Monday, Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry introduced, among other sweeping new health orders, additional guidance and support for schools to recommend mask use for students Grade 4 and up. However, the province later clarified that as part of the “circuit-breaker” measures, students from Grade 4 and up will actually be mandated to wear masks, while Kindergarten to Grade 3 students will be strongly encouraged to do so.

“Stronger mask mandate — this is a good thing,” said Winona Waldron of the Greater Victoria Teachers’ Association.
“It’s in line with what we saw announced for Surrey, glad to see that happening, I hope that will be the piece that will prevent exposures and prevent schools from closing down.”
It’s bittersweet news, as the Oxford Astrazeneca vaccine that would start going into the arm of teachers was pulled temporarily across the country due to safety concerns. The province says more details on how this will impact rollout amongst essential workers will be released in the coming days”Our members were so relieved that they were being prioritized because our workplaces have not been prioritized,” said  Waldron.
“Nothing has been changed in our workplaces, and now to hear the vaccine in question is not safe I, guess? We are going to have to wait again.”

The BCTF says the mask change is a step forward, but there is still lots of work to be done.”The areas that are the hardest-hit in the province should have the option of going to a hybrid learning model,” said BCTF president Teri Mooring. “We also see that ventilation systems also need to be looked at.”

READ MORE: Spring break, young people driving recent wave of COVID-19 infections on Vancouver Island

Anticipating the surge in school exposures, districts have undertaken “enhanced cleaning” of environments and bolstered signage to prompt physical distancing, enhanced monitoring of symptoms and absenteeism reviews.

“I do trust that the health professionals are giving us the best advice possible…but what we are doing in our schools I think is having a positive effect,” said Stinson.

If children even feel a little sick, they should be tested, Island Health says. To book an appointment in Island Health call 1-844-901-8442 between 8:30 a.m. and 8 p.m. daily.

Jeff Lawrence
Julian Kolsut

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