Open letter to BC Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside

Open letter to Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside,

Omicron is firmly established in BC. This variant spreads rapidly, doubling every 2-3 days in all countries around the world.  Community transmission is so high in BC that COVID-19 testing centers have not been able to keep up, turning people away and sending some of them home with rapid tests instead (which are not counted in official numbers).

There is also evidence that show hospitalizations of children are higher with Omicron compared to other variants. This has been seen in the UK, South Africa, and the USA (New York region), all areas that had earlier Omicron spread than BC. 

Omicron is also a fairly new variant. It has only been circulating for about 6 weeks, therefore there is no data on long-term effects. However, there is data that COVID-19 can cause damage to multiple organs, including the brain, heart, lungs, and kidneys, as evidenced by many people, including children, who suffer from Long Covid afterwards. Declaring that Omicron is “mild” and allowing it to run rampant through society when long-term data cannot be assessed yet runs counter to keeping our children and families (and yes, even the economy) safe.

In light of Omicron’s high community spread, high transmissibility, and risk to children, Safe Schools Coalition BC is demanding the Ministry of Education to:

1) Move schools to remote learning until community transmission in a health authority is below 5% positivity, measured by testing centres that have the capacity to PCR test all that request it, with results returned in a timely manner

2) Purchase HEPA air purifiers, as parts of Ontario have done, for all learning spaces

3) Provide N95/KN95 respirators (or equivalent) to all education staff and any students that need them

4) Provide carbon dioxide (CO2) monitors for schools to monitor stale air buildup throughout the day and adjust measures to mitigate when needed

5) Provide accurate, timely reporting of positive cases that have resulted in a school exposure, to schools and the education community

6) Provide rapid tests to be used for surveillance purposes whenever a positive case is confirmed in a class (“Test to Stay” approach)

7) Provide remote learning opportunities to families who request it

8) Ramp up vaccine provisions for education staff and for students

BC has maintained that when community transmission is low, schools can be kept open. Omicron has sent COVID-19 transmission to the highest levels BC has ever seen, to the point where BC has lost the ability to accurately track case numbers.  Under the circumstances, if BC were to reopen schools, the amount of disruption caused by mass illness, frequent absences and staff shortages would be high.

Safe Schools Coalition BC understands that in-person learning is important. That is why SSCBC is advocating for multiple layers of protections to be employed so that once community transmission is lower, in-person schooling can be kept safer despite a much more transmissible variant. 

Most importantly, measures need to address the main mode of COVID-19 spread, via aerosols that spread through the air. Clean air policies, via well-fitted, filtering masks, HEPA air purifiers, and CO2 monitoring, will help prevent Omicron spread in highly occupied classrooms, especially in the winter when it is often too cold to open windows widely.  The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) and Dr. Theresa Tam, have acknowledged the importance of aerosol transmission, including better masks and ventilation, in the fight against Omicron.

Lastly, school-aged children from Kindergarten to Grade 6 are among the last to be vaccinated. Only 35% of 5-11 year olds in BC have received their first dose of vaccine and are only partially vaccinated. Therefore, all elementary-aged children are still not fully protected by vaccination. Also, most school staff have not received their booster doses, which means they will be vulnerable to infection with Omicron, which, with rapid spread, could lead to severe staff shortages and subsequent school closures. 

Safe Schools Coalition BC recognizes that Omicron puts us in an emergency situation. Moving to remote learning while community spread is high ensures that more families will stay healthy during this exponential wave, while giving the government time to put in the safety measures that would have made schools safer all along. With Omicron, these are now imperative in the bid to keep schools open safely, especially in a population that is still unprotected by vaccines.  

We await the province’s response, for the safety of all BC children, families and school staff.

Safe Schools Coalition BC

Correction: this article has been updated to more accurately reflect Ontario's investment into HEPA air filtration units.

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