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Immune-compromised Prince George family pleads B.C. to reconsider COVID-19 school-restart plan

“It’s making me really nervous.”
Hunter Underhill - July 31, 2020
Hunter Underhill (left) spending time with his grandfather Dan. His grandmother Wanda is worried for theirs and her safety if Hunter goes back to school in Fall 2020 during COVID-19. (via Submitted)

“We are so scared and feel so isolated.”

Those are the words of Wanda Underhill, a Prince George grandmother and legal guardian of her grandson Hunter, who both suffer from health conditions that could be compromised if exposed to COVID-19.

On Wednesday (July 29), B.C. Education Minister Rob Fleming and Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry announced a school restart plan for the Fall that would see 'most students' back in the classroom on a full-time basis with certain restrictions to prevent further spread of the virus.

The plan is not sitting well with Underhill as she was diagnosed in September last year with Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA), which kept her from working her 26-year tenure with Spruce City Credit Union for a short time-period before COVID-19 hit the region.

“RA is a disease where it cripples you up and your internal organs get all inflamed as well. So I’ve been off work again since March 3,” she described in an interview with PrinceGeorgeMatters.

“What I’m fearing the most is [Hunter] being put together with a bunch of people, being exposed to the virus and bringing it home to us. There are very long-term effects and that person just might not make it. Like me! I’ve got compromised health.”

Hunter lives with minor cerebral palsy and is in the legal custody of his grandparents, 57-year-old Wanda and 60-year-old Dan.

Underhill explains her grandson was born one-pound, seven ounces with Hydrocephalus, also known as water in the brain, and other health problems stemming from his condition has put the now seven-year-old through 17 surgeries of the eyes, stomach and bowels.

Most recently, Hunter was air-lifted to Vancouver Children’s Hospital in June 2019 after a shunt failed in the stomach.

It’s these conditions that has Underhill worried for her family’s health and safety if Hunter is supposed to return full-time to Springwood Elementary for Grade 3 in the Fall.

“It’s making me really nervous. For full-time, and to be in a learning group of 60 kids where we haven’t even expanded our bubble to three or four yet, I was kind of hoping they would integrate them back into the school like what they did in June or provide us other opportunities like online learning still available to us. I was just in shock.”

Dr. Henry said at a news conference on Wednesday that elementary schools will consist of 60 people in a ‘learning group’ as B.C. moves into Stage 2 of its school restart plan.

She’s confident schools can reopen in the Fall, so long as community transmission remains low.

“When September comes, I ask families, employers to please continue to be flexible,” Dr. Henry said, acknowledging that authorities expect COVID-19 cases will occur, but the goal is to minimize the risk of transmission as B.C. also plans to invest $45.6 million for enhanced sanitizing regimes and more cleaning staff.

As of this publication (July 31), there are 88 positive cases in Northern Health, including 14 active ones all within Haida Gwaii’s community outbreak.

Underhill gives praise to Prince George residents for keeping infections at a little-to-none rate in recent weeks, but with two long weekends taking place before school starts on Sept. 8, she says an increased risk of transmission shouldn’t be counted out.

“How do you know where all of the other kids have been and their families? I know they’re saying 60 in the learning group, but now you have to account for the 60 kids’ families and their friends,” she said while echoing the BC Teachers’ Federation’s (BCTF) request to delay the start of school and hoping the Fall would mirror the partial (and virtual) reopening as seen in June.

“I think part-time would work great with Hunter because I do take the time at home to work with him, but he’s missing the social aspect of being around the kids and the school. I just feel so sorry for him not being able to go back because of my disease. I’m hoping they would have something in place for people like us, or other grandparents who are raising their grandchildren, you know being older, we’re more susceptible if we did get COVID-19.”

School District 57 Board Chair Tim Bennett acknowledged to PrinceGeorgeMatters on Wednesday the current return-to-school plan raises more questions than answers for parents, teachers and staff.

"Now that the district knows what September is needing to look like from the ministry, we can start planning on how we are going to offer education, especially at the secondary level, within the cohort or the learning groups as described by Dr. Henry."

Underhill is hoping SD57 can put a learning program together that puts other parents and guardians in her situation at ease instead of feeling, what she calls, isolated.

“I don’t want the feeling, if we go back to school, we could be putting our lives on the line. I understand there’s no risk-free environment, but in a situation like ours to just go back full-time with the kids in the class, to me, that’s a lot of exposure. I wish they would provide other alternatives for people like us.”

With Underhill and her husband in one of B.C.’s highest virus distribution rates for age (50-60), she worries greatly for Hunter’s future should either of them succumb to COVID-19.

“This little guy fought so hard to make it. He’s been the greatest blessing we’ve ever had.”

Minister Fleming says SD57 and other districts in B.C. have until Aug. 26 to publish a back-to-school plan

- with files from Jess Fedigan, PrinceGeorgeMatters, Tyler Orton, Business In Vancouver, and Stefan Labbe, Tri-City News