There have been COVID-19 cases at more than half a dozen schools on the central Island this month, but schools remain “very safe,” says Island Health.
Superintendents from Nanaimo-Ladysmith and Qualicum school districts held a Q-and-A with Dr. Sandra Allison, acting medical health officer for central Vancouver Island, earlier this week to ask questions they’ve been hearing about school safety during the pandemic.
Allison said she feels schools are safe based on what she’s seen from school district leadership and the “rigorous approach” to maintaining a controlled environment, limiting mingling of cohorts and following health and safety guidelines.
“School bubbles are very highly controlled situations and through administrative measures like tracking and census and knowing the flow of the students and cohorting and the environmental measures that you’re doing on the site, I think that really does distinguish a school from other settings in our society,” she said. “We have so many uncontrolled settings in our community, I don’t believe that worrying about the school setting is the primary place that we need to be worrying.”
Keven Elder, superintendent of Qualicum school district, asked about mixing of cohorts at break times and before and after school. Allison says she’s been pleased with the way contact tracing has identified close contacts and said interactions before and after school haven’t been found to have been a major source of virus transmission.
“Of course there are interactions, but at this time, I wouldn’t change how we’re permitting those interactions, so long as they’re doing it safely with masks and hand hygiene and trying to keep their distance,” she said.
Some parents have asked for mandatory masks and temperature checks, but Allison isn’t in favour of orders to that effect. As far as masks, she said in public health “we try to implement measures that are the least restrictive means; we don’t want to be heavy-handed.”
Regarding temperature checks, she said there’s “not a lot of evidence” to support it and once a fever is detected, “the horse is already out of the barn,” so the health authority instead recommends wellness checks, self-monitoring and staying at home when symptomatic.
Allison said for parents pulling their children out of school over COVID-19 concerns, her advice is that “fear is really disempowering” and she hopes those families taking that course of action are “doubling down” on efforts to control the spread of the virus in other ways.
She said she would be saddened if parents were to think that schools are unsafe and hopes everyone will try their hardest to keep schools open. She pointed to Island Health’s one-per cent test positivity rate and added that public health officials have found that children and teenagers don’t transmit COVID-19 to the same extent as adults.
When COVID-19 exposure happens in schools or even in a cohort, Allison doesn’t believe the whole cohort staying home and self-isolating is necessary.
“The last thing we want to do is to be excluding cohorts of students because we are presuming more risk than is present,” she said.
To view the video Q-and-A, click here.
COVID-19 school exposures or clusters have been reported in recent weeks at Dover Bay and John Barsby secondaries and Frank J. Ney and Randerson Ridge elementaries in Nanaimo, as well as at Ladysmith Secondary School and Alberni District Secondary School.