B.C. officials say COVID-19 safety plans in schools working, no changes imminent

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – Stronger measures to keep COVID-19 from spreading in some Lower Mainland schools are not going province-wide just yet.

B.C. Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside says there’s no evidence any variant strains have been transmitted within seven schools in the Fraser Health region, and suggests that’s proof existing safety protocols are working, as long as they are followed.

However, she adds, “We will learn from this situation and if it is necessary to update the safety guidelines, that is a question we are constantly looking at.”

Deputy Provincial Health Officer Dr. Reka Gustafson adds testing on demand is still not necessary.

“If you’re being asked to self isolate and then you get a test and that test is negative, we are actually quite concerned that people will miss understand that, and perhaps think that their isolation period is over and it’s absolutely not.”

As for ongoing calls to make masks mandatory at all schools — something teachers’ unions in particular have been pushing for — both Whiteside and Gustafson insist the current rules are sufficient.

“Based on what we know about the new variants of COVID-19, I would not recommend a change in our masking recommendation. But as with everything else in this pandemic, We have continued to learn, we continue to review the evidence. At this moment, there’s no indication for the change in that recommendation,” Gustafson says.

.@Fraserhealth confirms 300 students and teachers have been tested so far, but no one positive yet for variant strains.
Yesterday, we learned 7schools in Surrey and Delta had someone there who tested positive for the variant strain first identified in the UK. #bced @NEWS1130

— Marcella Bernardo (@Bernardo1130) February 22, 2021

For its part, the Fraser Health Authority says no additional students or staff at the seven local schools have tested positive yet for a variant strain of COVID-19 since the exposure notices were issued over the weekend.

Chief medical health officer Dr. Elizabeth Brodkin says 300 people have already been checked. She says there is additional testing happening Monday, and the results will likely be available Tuesday.

“These are all people who were deemed to be sufficiently close contacts and we wanted to be confident that they do not have the infection,” Brodkin said.

“I actually think that the safety measures that are present in the school are robust, provided they are followed, then the schools actually are well-protected against the transmission of people who come to school with infection,” she added.

Whiteside is backing up information provided earlier today by @Fraserhealth re: no cases linked yet.

Speaking now, Deputy Provincial Health Officer Dr. Réka Gustafson says testing strategy has improved, so new screening #’s date back as far as 3 weeks. #bced #bcpoli @NEWS1130

— Marcella Bernardo (@Bernardo1130) February 22, 2021

Right now, testing only involves six schools in Surrey and one in Delta where someone in the school tested positive for the B.1.1.7 variant. Brodkin says the source has not been pinpointed yet because most previous cases have involved someone who travelled out of the country.

The only school where rapid testing has been utilized is Surrey’s Ecole Woodward Hill Elementary, where 35 staff were rapid tested on Sunday. All other schools are using the standard PCR test.

Stronger measures now in effect in the Fraser Health region include faster screening for variants and asking more people to isolate.

Almost immediately after exposure notices were issued, both the BC Teachers’ Federation and the Surrey Teacher’ Association issued calls for the province to make it possible for individual schools or districts to introduce measures that exceed provincial guidelines.

Having cases of variants in schools needs to be a game-changer. We require greater protections to keep schools operating! Time for @BCNDPCaucus to act decisively to improve safety by abandoning the one-size-fits-all approach in BC. #bced #bcpoli https://t.co/k5FnFI5V7o

— Surrey Teachers’ Association (@SurreyTeachers) February 21, 2021

“The testing that has been done so far has indicated no transmission, and really what that tells us is that our safety plans are working,” Whiteside says.

“We need to make changes — if we’re going to make changes — based on evidence. At the moment, we need to let this process unfold and find out precisely what happened.”

Gustafson and Whiteside reiterated that what happens in schools is a reflection of what is happening in the broader community.