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Opinion: B.C. COVID-19 policies for schools changing on the fly

Expect more changes soon
Classroom with young children COVID
Young children wearing masks in classroom

As the K-12 school year progresses, do not be surprised if we see steady changes in COVID-19 health protocols.

We are less than one month into it and already there have been three major changes from what the plan was at the start of the school year.

The first change was how, or even if, to notify parents if a COVID-19 exposure was detected in a school.

Dr. Bonnie Henry announced at the start of the year that an exposure case detected in a school would not result in a notification being sent out to all parents in that school. That is what happened last school year, but she said she had been informed that such a practice caused undue “anxiety” amongst parents and staff.

Sure enough, it did not take long to scrap this new policy.

Just one week into the year, a group of parents of young kids who attend the Victoria Elementary approached me and said their kids and a handful more had suddenly all tested positive for COVID-19.

This raised some obvious questions. Were there more cases and shouldn’t parents be told about them? The school administration told the parents it was not allowed to talk about any of this with them.

I brought their concerns to Health Minister Adrian Dix and what do you know: a school-wide notification letter was issued and Henry formally announced the new policy (school wide notifications would return but would not be sent directly to parents but instead would be posted on the school district web site) a few days later.

The next change occurred when the mandatory mask-wearing rule was extended to include everyone in school, including kids in kindergarten through Grade 3.

The expansion of who had to wear a mask came as data showed the biggest increase in COVID-19 infections in September has been occurring in children aged five to 11. Not only have they not been vaccinated (they are not eligible yet) but they were not required to wear masks and the highly transmissible Delta variant of COVID-19 has been ripping through unvaccinated people in this province.

The third change has to do with data reporting. Starting mid-month, the B.C. Centre for Disease Control will issue a monthly report not only showing how many cases have been detected in schools, but also how much transmission is occurring in schools rather than, say, home or the general community.

I have said since the beginning of the pandemic that when it comes to health measures never assume anything is set in stone and are always subject change and evolution. It has been a good rule of thumb to follow.

So will there be enhanced cleaning requirements or ventilation improvements? Will teachers and school staff be captured by the mandatory vaccination requirement as part of the terms of employment?

Will even students be required to show proof of vaccination to attend school? I rather doubt we will see that measure, but you never know.

The good news that will again lead to some changes is that it appears that kids aged five to 11 will likely be deemed eligible for vaccination later this fall or winter. That development will have far greater impact than the wearing of masks, so it will be a welcome one.

Change is constant in this pandemic. In schools, it is even more so.

Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global BC.