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Parents question lack of COVID notices after cases spike at North Van's Capilano Elementary

Grade 3 and Grade 5 class at school now isolating
Dr. Bonnie Henry has said school COVID notifications will be provided to parents this year. But parents at North Vancouver's Capilano Elementary say they have yet to receive them. photo Mike Wakefield

Parents at a North Vancouver elementary school say health officials didn’t do enough to warn families about COVID-19 exposures after cases at their school quickly shot up in the last week.

By Tuesday, two classes at Capilano Elementary – a grade 3 class and a grade 5 class – had been told to self-isolate – and a families of a grade 2 class had been told to monitor for COVID symptoms.

But parents voiced frustration that it took so long to find out about the COVID cases in their school, noting the first exposures date back two weeks and continued up until Sept. 24.

“Parents are definitely frustrated with how long this has taken,” said Coralynn Gehl, a North Shore mom who runs a North Shore Facebook site where parents share information. “Those isolation notices should have gone out Sunday night so kids were not back in school on Monday.”

On Sunday, the principal of Capilano Elementary told families in a letter health officials have informed her of one case at the school, while parents of seven other students have phoned to report their kids have tested positive for the virus.

But parents who’ve been sharing information on chat groups and social media forums say the real number of cases at the school is at least 15 and probably over 20.

They’re also wondering why the school hasn’t been temporarily closed.

Gehl said she’s heard from families who’ve reported cases in four different grades at the school, adding there had been little notification up until Monday night.

“I’ve heard from at least three families whose kids tested positive” after initial cases were identified in their classes, she said. None of those families had heard from health officials identifying them as close contacts, she added. “There’s clearly a problem,” she said.

Capilano parents who spoke to the North Shore News said they only found out about positive cases in their own children’s classes from other parents and questioned why Vancouver Coastal Health hasn't been more forthcoming with information.

“I know the school is doing the best they can,” said Pamela Guenther, whose two children attend the school. But she added, “It’s been unacceptable the lack of communication from public health. When parents have to take [information sharing] into their own hands, it doesn’t make you confident.”

Armity Mehin had a similar experience with her son’s Grade 5 class at the school, where she found out about six cases through a group chat among parents.

Another mom said she heard nothing from the school district or health officials to indicate there had been multiple cases of COVID in her daughter’s class – until her own child got sick and tested positive for the virus.

“I didn’t realize there had been that many cases in the school,” she said. “Had I known that, I would have kept my daughter at home.”

By Monday this week, only about half of the school’s students showed up for classes, according to the North Vancouver school district.

In a letter to parents, Capilano Elementary principal Jeeniece Chand wrote that school is now using staggered lunch and recess times for intermediate and primary students, and halting activities that would involve mixing of classes, in an effort to minimize spread of the virus.

Katrina Russell, president of the North Vancouver Teachers Association, said teachers share parents’ concerns about lack of timely notice of school COVID cases. “I’m really feeling for the teachers at Capilano right now,” she said. The lack of information has also heightened anxiety for teachers at other schools, she said.

Capilano is the first school in North Vancouver to have COVID-19 cases reported among students this school year.

Earlier this month, Ecole Pauline Johnson in West Vancouver also reported an exposure between Sept. 7 and Sept. 10.

Last week, Dr. Bonnie Henry, the province’s medical health officer, said that school notifications would be provided to families this school year – an about-face after hearing from both parents and teachers wanting those to continue.

On Tuesday, Henry said notices of school COVID cases will be listed on health authority websites starting this week. But she added individual letters won’t go out to parents in every case.

Meanwhile, a popular site that tracks notifications in schools – the BC School COVID Tracker - is continuing to post verified information, as is Gehl’s North Shore COVID Information Facebook site.

The rash of cases at Capilano Elementary comes as rates of COVID-19 cases among school-aged children have significantly increased, particularly among children aged five through 11. Cases among children are higher in communities with low vaccination rates, said Henry.

“It is a concerning trend,” said Henry.

She added there are also a number of other respiratory viruses circulating, which have pushed up the number of children getting tested for COVID-19.

At the first North Vancouver public school board meeting this month, both the co-chair of the District Parent Advisory Council and the president of the North Vancouver Teachers Association told trustees they want to see notices given about COVID cases.

PAC co-chair Zee Noorani said parents also want to see mask mandates for children in primary grades, and volunteers in schools to show proof of vaccination.

“It is shocking that we require a vaccination passport to enter a restaurant, but not school grounds full of unvaccinated children,” said Noorani.