Students at B.C. schools won’t be required to wear masks while sitting at their desks despite the U.K. variant of concern being identified on the weekend at schools in Surrey and Delta.
Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside and deputy provincial health officer Dr. Réka Gustafson confirmed that school protocols are working at preventing the spread of COVID-19 variants of concern in B.C. classrooms.
“We have very robust health and safety plans in place, and our experience has been where our safety plans are adhered to we see very little transmission in schools,” said Whiteside.
In fact, as many as 35 teachers were tested for a variant yesterday (Sunday) and all were negative, according to Gustafson.
Whiteside, however, recommended that schools “encourage a mask culture” in which students are told if they are moving they should be wearing a mask.
Gustafson said based on B.C.’s experience, the current mask policy is an effective policy that reflects both knowledge about how the virus is spread and an individual’s ability to comply.
“We would not recommend a change now,” Gustafson said.
B.C. TEACHERS CALL FOR STRONGER MASK RULES
However, the BC Teachers’ Federation is calling for masks to be worn everywhere in schools and fewer students in a classroom as six Surrey schools and one Delta school were recently found to have COVID-19 cases with a U.K .variant.
Those schools have been undergoing enhanced testing, contact tracing and contacts are being asked to isolate.
However, Gustafson said the cases didn’t happen all at once but were the result of new screening measures introduced three weeks ago that are identifying variants from positive COVID-19 cases.
She said the screening was introduced because it’s faster than genome testing and as a result, 70% of positive tests are being screened now compared to 20% of samples three weeks ago.
As a result, more cases of variants will likely be identified in the province in the coming weeks, she said, noting that the U.K. variant cases in Surrey and Delta occurred over three weeks, “they didn’t happen all that same time.”
And while Fraser Health is introducing enhanced testing — including rapid testing and testing of asymptomatic high-risk contacts of individuals who test positive — and other measures to identify and stop the spread of COVID-19 variants in Surrey and Delta, there are no plans to introduce them in other school districts.
MINISTRY OF HEALTH WILL RELY ON LOCAL INTELLIGENCE NOT MASS TESTING
Instead, public health officials will continue to rely on “intelligence” gathered through contact tracing and investigation at B.C. schools, which will then be used to recommend testing, 14-day isolation or symptom monitoring as needed, according to Gustafson.
She was also careful to note that a negative test does not mean an individual can stop isolating. They must still isolate for the entire period, she said.
However, Gustafson said information gathered from Surrey schools, as well as a recent variant at Garibaldi secondary in Maple Ridge, would inform further strategies for the province.
“We will learn from these, we will apply what we have learned from a testing strategy going forward,” Gustafson said.