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A closer look: How the COVID-19 pandemic is playing out in New Westminster schools

In the wake of a B.C. Centre for Disease Control school situation report, we take a look at how it's all unfolding right here in School District 40
Qayqayt Elementary School
École Qayqayt Elementary School has been the hardest-hit by COVID-19 so far in the 2021/22 school year.

COVID-19 is playing a much larger role in New Westminster classrooms this year than it did in 2020/21.

And, although the exact extent of COVID-19 cases in schools is difficult to quantify, it seems that the situation in School District 40 is mostly in line with the broader picture provincewide.

In the wake of a B.C. school situation report released by the B.C. Centre for Disease Control Oct. 19 – the first in a promised series of monthly reports – the New Westminster Record has taken a closer look at both the provincial and local picture.

“When COVID-19 spreads in a community, there is a risk that it will be introduced in the schools in that community. COVID-19 cases in school typically reflect the number of cases in their communities,” said the BCCDC report.

“The risk of COVID-19 in B.C. K-12 schools looks different this year: there are new variants of the virus that spread more easily, but there are also highly effective vaccines that are widely available to those aged 12 and older.”

Here’s a look at how all of that is playing out in New Westminster schools right now.

 

‘EXPOSURE’ NUMBERS UP

The BCCDC report says the province’s kindergarten-to-Grade 12 schools saw 1,388 COVID-19 exposure notifications between Sept. 7 and Oct. 9, 2021, involving 510 schools provincewide – or 27% of B.C. schools.

An "exposure" means that someone who has since tested positive for COVID-19 was in the school during their potentially infectious period on the date or dates in question and that other people may be at risk of having come in contact with the virus.

Health officials do not publish the number of cases involved, so it's not known whether the dates involve one case or multiple cases. The public information also does not list whether cases involve staff or students, or both.

That information system makes it difficult to quantify how much change there has been between the previous school year (2020/21) and this year (2021/22).

But a Record database from the previous school year shows that, as of Oct. 21, 2020, the New Westminster school district had seen at least eight exposures across five schools, with a total of 20 exposure dates spread out among those schools.

By comparison, as of Oct. 21, 2021, the district had seen at least 20 exposures across eight schools, with at least 54 exposure dates.

With eight of the district’s 12 schools having seen COVID-19 exposures, that means two-thirds of local schools have had exposures so far this year – significantly above the provincial proportion.

 

CASE RATES DECLINING

The BCCDC report notes that, provincewide, the seven-day moving average of COVID-19 cases among children under 12 (the age group ineligible for vaccination) increased sharply in early September, peaked during the week of Sept. 26 and is now declining again.

A New Westminster-specific breakdown of COVID-19 cases among children is not available.

But two separate markers – total local case counts and school exposures – suggest that the local situation may have reached its peak in early October before beginning the downward trend.

New Westminster’s case count hit 56 new cases in the week of Oct. 3 and 9 – the highest it had been since the start of the school year. The following week saw that number drop to 39.

At the same time, the school exposure situation in New Westminster reached a peak around Thanksgiving weekend, with New Westminster Secondary School, Fraser River Middle School and École Qayqayt Elementary School all seeing multiple exposure dates around that time.

The spike in school exposures in School District 40 was largely driven by the situation at Qayqayt, which recorded at least eight separate exposures in a short time period. One class was also sent into isolation.

 

CLUSTERS AND OUTBREAKS

To date, no outbreaks or “clusters” have been declared in New Westminster – although the BCCDC definition of “cluster” suggests that at least the Qayqayt cases could potentially meet the definition.

“School clusters are defined as two or more cases that were reported within a 14-day period where transmission was likely within the school or where transmission in the classroom setting can not be ruled out,” the BCCDC report says. “This means that, where contact tracers could not identify a specific source of transmission, out of an abundance of caution, these cases were considered to have acquired COVID-19 at school.”

The report analyzed clusters that occurred only in Interior Health and not in other health regions, including Fraser Health (where New Westminster is located).

However, it notes that a provincial K-12 school cluster reporting system is “currently under development” and is expected to be available in subsequent reports.

 

VACCINATION RATES

The BCCDC continues to stress the role of vaccination in keeping children safe – including those children too young to be vaccinated themselves.

“Increasing COVID-19 vaccine coverage among all eligible individuals aged 12 years and older is the most effective strategy to reduce the risk in K-12 schools during the 2021/22 school year,” the report says. “Not only does vaccination help protect the individual, it can also help protect others in the community, including younger children who are not yet eligible to be vaccinated.”

New Westminster has consistently remained among the B.C. leaders in vaccination.

As of the latest published data, 87% of the eligible population (aged 12+) was fully vaccinated – second only to Delta in the Fraser Health region and ranking as the 12th-best among local health areas in B.C.

Among 12-to-17-year-olds in New Westminster – the only school-age population currently eligible for vaccination – that rate is 82%. It’s been slowly but steadily climbing since the school year began – it stood at 76%, by comparison, as of Sept. 21.

But, in New Westminster at least, there hasn’t been a clear correlation between a rise in vaccination rates and a change in the school exposure situation. 

New Westminster Secondary School – the only local school whose entire population is old enough to be eligible for vaccination – has seen at least five exposures since the beginning of the school year. And the latest of those (which include two or more separate exposures) cover recent dates: Oct. 13, 15, 18, 19 and 20.

 

KEEPING WATCH

The October BCCDC report notes that the COVID-19 situation in schools remains one to watch.

“While the experience from the last school year provided insight into how COVID-19 spread within the K-12 school environment, the emergence of the more transmissible Delta variant over the summer means that it is important to continue to monitor and respond as necessary to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in schools,” it said.     

 

COVID EXPOSURES IN NEW WESTMINSTER SCHOOLS

Here’s what has transpired in the 2021/22 school year so far in New Westminster:

  • École Qayqayt Elementary: Sept. 8 (reported by B.C. School COVID Tracker; predated change to Fraser Health notifications)
  • École Qayqayt Elementary: Sept. 20, 21, 22 (reported by B.C. School COVID Tracker; predated change to Fraser Health notifications)
  • Urban Academy (independent): Sept. 22, 23, 24 (reported on Fraser Health site Sept. 29)
  • Herbert Spencer Elementary: Sept. 21 (reported on Fraser Health site Oct. 1)
  • Lord Kelvin Elementary: Sept. 24 (reported on Fraser Health site Sept. 29)
  • Lord Tweedsmuir Elementary: Sept. 21, 22, 23, 24 (reported on Fraser Health site Oct. 1; B.C. School COVID Tracker confirms this is at least three separate cases)
  • New Westminster Secondary: Sept. 22, 23, 24 (reported on Fraser Health site Oct. 3)
  • Lord Kelvin Elementary: Sept. 22, 23, 28 (dates added on Fraser Health site Oct. 3)
  • New Westminster Secondary: Sept. 28 (date added on Fraser Health site Oct. 4)
  • Urban Academy (independent): Sept. 27, 28 (dates added on Fraser Health site Oct. 1)
  • Glenbrook Middle School: Sept. 25, 26, 28, 29, Oct. 1 (listed on Fraser Health site Oct. 7)
  • École Qayqayt Elementary School: Sept. 27, 28, 29, Oct. 1 (dates added on Fraser Health site Oct. 7)
  • Skwo:wech Elementary School: Sept. 23, 24, 27, 28, 29 (listed on Fraser Health site Oct. 7)
  • École Qayqayt Elementary School: Oct. 4,5 (listed on Fraser Health site Oct. 9; B.C. School COVID Tracker confirms this is at least two separate exposures)
  • New Westminster Secondary: Oct. 4, 5, 6 (dates added on Fraser Health site Oct. 9)
  • École Qayqayt Elementary School: Oct. 5, 6, 7, 8 (dates not yet added on Fraser Health site; B.C. School COVID Tracker confirms at least two separate exposures involving this date range, with emails sent Oct. 11)
  • École Qayqayt Elementary School: Oct. 6, 7, 8, 11, 12 (separate case from above; one full class sent into isolation)
  • Fraser River Middle School: Oct. 7, 8, 12, 13, 14, 15 (reported on Fraser Health site Oct. 19)
  • Lord Kelvin Elementary School: Oct. 14, 15 (reported on Fraser Health site Oct. 20)
  • New Westminster Secondary School: Oct. 15, 18 (added on Fraser Health site Oct. 22)
  • New Westminster Secondary School: Oct. 13, 19, 20 (added on Fraser Health site Oct. 23)
  • Urban Academy (independent): Oct. 18, 19 (added on Fraser Health site Oct. 24)

                                                          

Follow Julie MacLellan on Twitter @juliemaclellan.
Email Julie, jmaclellan@newwestrecord.ca.