Patti Bacchus: Parents deserve faster, fuller disclosure of school COVID-19 cases

    1 of 3 2 of 3

      It was bad enough to send teachers, education assistants, and students back into stuffy, mask-optional, crowded classrooms, where it’s impossible to physically distance, in the middle of a pandemic.

      The provincial health officer defends the controversial COVID-19 school plan, saying schools are controlled environments, that “layers of protection” will keep the deadly virus from transmitting in poorly ventilated classrooms filled with maskless small people, and that if someone brings the virus in to class, it will be quickly identified and rapid contact tracing will occur.

      She also said health authorities will post all school exposures, clusters, or outbreaks, should there be any.

      Less than a month after kids went back to class, there have been dozens of school exposures but, apparently, no clusters or outbreaks.

      We’re supposed to trust school districts to keep kids and teachers safe. Teachers and education assistants with risk factors like diabetes or other conditions were told they had to come into work anyway. Objectors were accused of fearmongering or dismissed as hysterical.

      Let’s not forget government could have moved quickly last spring to invest in plans that would have been much safer but that would have required leadership, will, and money. We saw too little of any of those on the K-12 education file.

      And here we are, with daily reports of more school exposures. Don’t worry! It’s just an exposure and to be expected. Health authorities, or your school principal, may not tell you if a student or staff person in your child’s class came to school with COVID-19. If you’re a teacher and a child in your class came to school with COVID-19, your health authority may decide you don’t need to know about it. Because telling you there was someone in your class with the virus might violate the unnamed employee or student’s privacy rights, or some kind of nonsense.

      You’ll get a notice if someone in your kid’s class has head lice or pinworms, so why is it different when it’s a potentially deadly virus? It’s boggles the mind.

      What’s with Vancouver Coastal Health?

      I’m the type who generally has confidence in our local and public health professionals. It’s not like me to question whether they’re telling us the truth or not. But 2020 isn’t normal, and I confess I’m starting to doubt that we’re getting all the information we need to make informed decisions.

      It started early in the pandemic when health officials pooh-poohed people wearing nonmedical masks, even going so far as to say they caused more harm than good. Our revered provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, said in March: “In terms of us all wearing masks, one, it’s a colossal waste of masks and we know that people who aren’t ill and are wearing a mask often fiddle with their face and that can be a risk for them self-inoculating and becoming ill.”

      I get that protecting the medical-mask supply was important, but why discourage people from wearing nonmedical masks? It seemed like common sense to wear them then, and it sure does now. In fairness, we’ve learned more about the virus and it’s not unexpected that advice would change, so I could let that one pass, if it was the worst of it.

      We need accurate, timely, transparent information about COVID-19 cases in schools

      We all need to do our parts to limit the spread of COVID-19, but to do that, we need as much accurate, up-to-date information as possible about how to do that, where the virus is, and how it spreads.

      B.C. provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry.

      If we—or our kids—are going to spend hours a day in classrooms with people who aren’t wearing masks, we need to know if any of them has COVID-19, and we need to know it as soon as possible. I don’t care if that person was sitting 10 feet away; I want to know if I spent hours in a room with someone with COVID-19 or if my kid did. I don’t think that’s too much to expect.

      Dr. Henry assured the public that health authorities would be posting consistent and accurate information online about school exposures, clusters, outbreaks, or whatever the heck they’re being called this week.

      But Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) had different ideas and appeared to defy Henry. I started hearing about positive cases in teachers in the first week of school, but those were never made public. Then we heard about more cases when the kids were back in the second week, and letters from principals to parents about exposures started circulating online and landing in my inboxes.

      I’m no epidemiologist, but I do know a thing or two about communications. I even worked as a school-district communications manager once upon a time (known as the 1980s). The first rule during a crisis is to provide accurate, honest, and timely information. That prevents the wrong information from getting shared and builds public trust, which is crucial for successfully navigating a crisis.

      Defiance from VCH

      By the third week of September, I was regularly getting copies of letters regarding exposures in several schools in the region that weren’t listed publicly. Around that time, VCH’s deputy chief medical health officer, Dr. Mark Lysyshyn, was quoted in the media saying they wouldn’t post all school COVID-19 exposures because doing so could lead to “stigma” and “unnecessary worry”.

      That didn’t go over well with West Vancouver parents, where principals at three secondary schools—Sentinel, West Vancouver secondary, and Collingwood private school—had already sent parents letters about school exposures.

      You know what happens when you don’t give people the information they need or want? They create a Facebook group that becomes the de facto information source when official sources fail to do their jobs. That’s risky, because inaccurate crowd-sourced information can easily be spread, but I don’t blame parents for creating such groups. I blame VCH for failing to share accurate, timely information with parents and the public so people can make informed decisions about going to school.

      How badly did VCH fail?

      Public health officials may have mishandled a COVID-19 cluster at Caulfield elementary in West Vancouver, where parents got minimal information regarding an exposure but shared more information among themselves. They discovered that more than half a class tested positive for COVID, in addition to some siblings, parents, and grandparents. Parents were advised they didn’t need to have kids tested if they weren’t showing symptoms, but one mom went ahead and had her child tested anyway, and the test came back positive.

      Three other asymptomatic cases later tested positive. Good grief. What’s it going to take?

      Yet Henry insisted it wasn’t an outbreak, because kids were self-isolating at home.

      Fed-up parents’ open letter to Dr. Henry and Dr. Daly

      Earlier this week, frustrated parents started circulating an open letter to Henry and Dr. Patricia Daly, the VCH’s chief medical health officer. The letter says parents are “rapidly losing faith in the cohort system” and opting to keep their kids home, with little to no educational support.

      The letter asks for prompt disclosure of school exposures and isolation of full cohorts instead of waiting for contact tracers to determine close contacts for isolations. They also want school-aged siblings included in the isolation strategy.

      Meanwhile, at Elsie Roy in Yaletown

      An October 3 VCH letter  to all students and teachers in a class at Elsie Roy elementary in Yaletown started circulating on social media last weekend. It said it was requiring all staff and students from the class who attended school from September 22 to 24 (about 10 days prior to the letter, which is almost a full COVID-19 incubation period) to self-isolate.

      Elsie Roy Elementary School.
      Vancouver School Board

      An Elsie Roy teacher tweeted on October 5 that she learned about the self-isolating class from Twitter instead of hearing it from her employer. Elsie Roy is one of the most crowded and congested schools I’ve been in, and that says a lot. I can’t imagine a better setting for a virus to transmit. I’d be pretty upset if I worked there and no one bothered to tell me an entire class had been told to isolate due to COVID-19 exposure. What I don’t know can hurt me, or those in my bubble.

      Henry was adamant in media briefings this week that parents are getting all the information they need. Yet I’m still finding out about COVID-19 exposures more quickly via social media and parents forwarding me notification letters (keep them coming), than I can find on health-authority websites, and so can parents.

      Henry said on October 5 that “some of these events [COVID-19 exposures and clusters] were not being publicly posted, and I can clarify that that communication glitch has been solved.”

      I’m not sure I’d call failing to tell parents and the public about COVID-19 cases in their schools a simple glitch, and I’m not convinced the problem has been solved. It sounds to me like a lot of parents aren’t either.

      If Henry expects parents to trust schools with their children—and, by extension, with their families’ health—she needs to make sure parents and school staff are getting as much information as possible, and as quickly as possible, and knock it off with the “we know best about what you need to know and/or don’t know” approach. Parents can handle the truth, and they deserve the truth.

      The parents’ open letter asks Henry and Daly to rebuild trust by giving them transparency and more stringent safety protocols. Why the heck not?

      Patti Bacchus is the Georgia Straight K-12 education columnist. She was chair of the Vancouver school board from 2008 to 2014.