With no word from the province on how schools will handle COVID-19 health protocols this year in the midst of increasing case numbers, some Greater Victoria teachers and parents are feeling anxious about the return. (Black Press Media file photo)

With no word from the province on how schools will handle COVID-19 health protocols this year in the midst of increasing case numbers, some Greater Victoria teachers and parents are feeling anxious about the return. (Black Press Media file photo)

Back to school: Vancouver Island parents, teachers concerned with lack of COVID-19 plan

No cohorts, masks not mandatory; existing scenario making people nervous

Mere weeks away from the first day of school and with no provincial COVID-19 guidelines in place, some Greater Vancouver Island parents and teachers are feeling overwhelmed with anxiety.

When school let out two months ago, daily COVID-19 cases were in the teens, vaccination rates were steadily increasing, and B.C. was dropping its mandatory mask mandate. Now, daily case counts are back in the hundreds and concerns are whirling around the prominence of the Delta variant.

Despite this, B.C. has yet to release any guidelines on how schools will keep kids safe this year. If students were to return to classes today, there would be no cohorts and masks would be voluntary.

This is extremely concerning for Jennifer Turnbull, whose two youngest kids – in Grades 1 and 5 – have severe viral induced asthma. The common cold has sent her kids to the hospital on numerous occasions, she said, and she fears what COVID-19 could do.

All three of her kids stayed home from school last year, but with things looking so positive heading into the summer, Turnbull told them they could return in September. The children couldn’t be more excited, but their mom has been waking up in the middle of the night to search for the best masks with which to equip them.

If things continue to get worse and the province doesn’t implement safety guidelines, Turnbull said, she’ll have to quash her kids’ hopes and keep them at home.

“I kind of feel like my hands are tied … it’s really terrifying,” she said.

What’s even more frustrating is the lack of public data that exists to inform her decision, Turnbull said. She has no idea what percentage of kids who contract COVID-19 are being sent to hospital, and how the presence of other health conditions affects that number. She’s also concerned that with vaccines being unavailable for people under age 12, there’s very little to stop the spread of COVID-19 in her younger children’s school.

It’s a worry shared by elementary school teacher Carolyn Howe, who said she knows several families with immunocompromised children. “I feel really heartsick for those families,” she said.

Without provincial guidelines – and even with – Howe said the burden of keeping children safe falls to teachers. Not many people realize how difficult it is to keep a class of kindergarteners physically distanced, hygienic and engaged, she said. “It’s a toll that’s really not considered.”

According to Greater Victoria Teachers’ Association president Winona Waldron, the association is pushing for the province to commit to three things: fund the upgrading of school ventilation systems, set clear benchmarks of how many COVID-19 cases require a school to reduce capacity or move online, and implement mobile vaccination clinics in schools.

All three women agreed masks should be made mandatory again, too.

“Anything we can do to protect students is what we should be doing, ” Waldron said.

Deb Whitten, Greater Victoria School District interim superintendent, told Black Press Media on Aug. 10 that she would be talking with Ministry of Education representatives this week. She hoped to have some information to share in the coming weeks.

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