Mount Baker Secondary School in Cranbrook.

Mount Baker Secondary School in Cranbrook.

School district staff, students head back to class amid Omicron surge

Hundreds of students and staff across the Southeast Kootenay school district are heading back to the classrooms following a week-long break to plan for COVID-19 disruptions amid rising case counts in the region and the province.

During a press conference on Jan. 7, Jennifer Whiteside, B.C.’s education minister, said schools would be returning to in-person learning with enhanced measures, while also preparing plans in the case of COVID-19 interruptions.

“What we know is that since the pandemic began we have seen that schools are a reflection of what happens in the community,” said Whiteside, “and so we know that students and staff and our schools will be affected by this latest variant and that’s why we want to ensure health and safety measures are in place so children and youth can learn in school to the best extent possible.”

Whiteside noted that those safety measures may include three-layer masks, reduced crowding, staggered break times and virtual assemblies.

The education minister also announced changes in COVID-19 case management and tracking in schools.

“We have worked with public health on a system to ensure that we can continue to provide communication to parents,” Whiteside said. “This is going to look, though, very different from what has been in place before because as public health has advised us, individual case management and contact tracing is no longer a helpful tool for us in tracking cases in school. We need a proxy to understand what may be happening with COVID in schools and so that proxy will be school attendance.

“Schools will be monitoring attendance rates closely and will notify public health and the school community if attendance dips notably below typical rates for this time of year. That will trigger a response from public health, which may include investigation, it might include the use of rapid tests to get a better understanding of what’s happening on the ground.”

COVID-19 cases in Cranbrook and Fernie have been reported at record levels over the last few weeks, based on data from the B.C. Centre for Disease Control.

In terms of Southeast Kootenay School District activity over the past week-long pause, Jason Tichauer, the Safe Schools Coordinator, said much of the week allowed for staff to plan for remote or online learning delivery if deemed necessary.

“To plan for not only being on online for individual classes but also to plan to have work available online in case there are staff shortages or functional closures,” Tichauer said. “And that may look different in different places with different courses.”

Under the latest guidelines from public health, individual schools will be monitoring student and staff absenteeism.

If daily student absenteeism is over 25 per cent in any grade or greater than 10 per cent over what a school is used to having for absenteeism, the district will notify Interior Health, Tichauer said.

“That doesn’t mean they will necessarily put other procedures in place, it’s just they’d be aware of it and we have mechanisms for communicating that to parents as well,” Tichauer said. “But that would not result in a functional closure necessarily; functional closures would be necessitated by our inability to supervise students safely — in other words, if we had staff absences to a level where we could just not have safe supervision for our kids.”

While cabinet ministers and district officials touted the planning work completed during last week’s break, provincial and local teachers’ union leadership panned some of the announced measures.

In a press conference responding to the province’s Jan. 7th update, Terri Mooring, the president of the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation (BCTF), specifically highlighted a lack of support for mask-wearing and noted a ‘reluctance’ from the province to provide N95 masks, which is considered to provide superior protection against aerosols or droplets.

Mooring also pushed for teachers to get priority access to COVID-19 booster shots, and raised concerns over school ventilation and lower vaccination rates in school-aged children.

“What we’re trying to prevent are the functional closures,” said Mooring.

Shelley Balfour, the president of the Cranbrook and District Teachers’ Association, echoed much of the same concerns.

Enforcing the mask mandate has been a long-running issue of contention, according to Balfour.

“I cannot be more frustrated with the lack of ability for the school districts to enforce the mask mandate,” Balfour said. “Without a mask, I cannot get on a city bus, enter a store or eat in a restaurant but schools with 800-plus students can spend 6.5 hours together every day and not be required to wear a mask. Schools have no recourse when students refuse to wear a mask or their parents allow them the freedom to disobey the health order.”

While Tichauer said the district has ordered thousands of three-layer masks, Balfour noted the local union is buying and distributing hundreds of N95 masks to staff after being told they had to purchase their own.

Balfour also criticized the province’s plan to monitor student and staff absenteeism as indicators for COVID-19 signals.

“I am not that excited that the decision to force a functional closure will be based purely on the attendance level at a school,” said Balfour. “By that time, many folks have been infected. This year, teachers have really missed the contact tracing that was done over the past two years. That extensive contract tracing provided a better sense of security for teachers when they knew folks were looking into things. The change in the procedure for this year has caused a lot of angst.”

Further concerns include a lack of daytime custodians in elementary schools, school doors are not locked to keep the school community contained, and HVAC systems are not equipped with specialized filters, Balfour added.

Balfour also warned that the pandemic is taking a toll on the local membership’s morale.

“I have had more teachers talking about leaving the profession this year than ever before,” she said. “They cannot take the constant stress and expectation that they must continue on regardless of what is happening around them.”