Despite clusters, COVID-19 not being transmitted in Island schools, medical official says

Despite recent clusters and exposures of COVID-19 in Nanaimo, there has been no transmission within schools, says the Central Island’s medical health officer.

That suggests preventative measures are working, said Dr. Sandra Allison.

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“What we are seeing in schools right now is a reflection of COVID-19 activity in the community,” she said. “We are seeing a high number of cases in the central Island region and that is reflected in the increased instances of people within the school community being exposed to this virus when they’re not at school.”

The central Island had 50 confirmed active cases of COVID-19 as of Monday, about half of the total for all of Island Health. There are 30 cases in the south Island and 19 in the north.

Since September, there have been five separate exposures and three clusters at schools within Island Health — including four in Nanaimo and one in Ladysmith this month.

Cendra Beaton, president of the Sooke Parents’ ­Education Advisory Council, said parents are “hyper-aware” of the COVID-19 situation in ­Vancouver Island schools.

“I have been paying attention, definitely,” Beaton said. “These are our children that are in the schools.”

She has a daughter in middle school and a son in elementary school.

“We’re putting our trust in the staff and the district to ensure that the protocols are followed,” Beaton said. “We know they’re doing the best that they can within the guidelines.

“It’s challenging for everyone.”

COVID-19 control in B.C. schools is focused on things like enhanced cleaning efforts and organizing people into learning groups, where they have the bulk of their interactions. Learning groups are made up of about 30 people in elementary and middle schools, and up to 120 in secondary schools.

Beaton said there is always some level of risk from COVID “and we’re just hoping our Island bubble is able to maintain.”

Winona Waldron, president of the Greater Victoria Teachers’ Association, noted that secondary students started their second quarter Monday, “so they’re coming into contact with a whole new group of people, and cases are on the rise.”

She said the Greater Victoria School District is doing what it can. “I think our schools are really putting in the effort to follow the guidelines.”

But Waldron said air quality is an ongoing issue at some sites, where the advice has been to keep windows open.

“Now the weather is considerably worse, COVID cases are rising and teachers can’t just keep the windows open,” she said.

She said a good step for dealing with COVID would be to make face coverings mandatory for those 10 and older, a measure teachers first asked for in the spring.

Teachers have also been asking for smaller classes as a means of dealing with COVID.

Waldron said she hopes COVID-related school closures can be avoided.

“We don’t want that in Victoria,” she said. “I’d rather kids were able to go two days a week, 2 1/2 days a week or however we set it up, than not be able to go at all.”

Sooke School Board chairman Ravi Parmar said the district will “stay the course” in its reaction to COVID because things are working well, but will also try to learn from the challenges of other school districts, including those on the Lower ­Mainland.

“COVID sees no borders,” he said. “It can hit a community very quickly.”

Parmar said it is being stressed to families how important it is to a health check with students before sending them to school. That involves determining if they have such potential COVID symptoms as fever, worsening chronic cough or shortness of breath.

Allison agreed, saying it is “absolutely critical” that parents perform the daily health check. “School districts throughout Island Health have distributed the BCCDC’s guidance on this and it is an important tool to making sure anyone with COVID symptoms stays home and does not expose their community.”

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