After an extra week of winter break, over 20,000 students on the North Shore headed back to class this week in the midst of a new phase of the pandemic.
Authorities acknowledged the high transmissibility of the Omicron variant means many people will likely catch the virus in the coming weeks.
But that doesn’t mean schools should close, said Dr. Bonnie Henry, the province’s medical health officer, on Friday.
“Everybody, I believe, knows somebody, or has somebody in their close social circle, who's been affected by COVID-19. That means this is going to be a challenging month. But it doesn't mean that we need to stop everything,” said Henry. “School is essential and we know it is the best place for children to be.”
Schools reopened this week with an emphasis on proper mask wearing and plans to switch to temporary online learning if schools are struck by outbreaks or if too many staff become sick to keep schools open.
Schools will monitor absences
In the absence of contact tracing, which Henry said is no longer a useful way to control outbreaks, schools will monitor rates of staff and student absence to see if any are spiking particularly high for clues about local COVID outbreaks.
Henry said in the next few weeks, rapid tests will also be used to help detect COVID in symptomatic staff and students.
Both North and West Vancouver school districts said any decisions about moving classes to online learning or temporarily closing schools will be done on a case-by-case basis.
Closures would be a last resort and may only impact one class at a time, said North Vancouver Schools Superintendent Mark Pearmain in a letter to parents.
West Vancouver Schools spokesperson Tricia Buckley said if closures were needed they would likely last anywhere from two to seven days.
Schools are limiting larger gatherings like assemblies. Sports activities, including indoor sports, will continue at schools, although tournaments are being halted.
On Monday, the first day back, attendance in West Van schools was actually higher than it normally is in January, said Buckley.
Some parents relieved to see schools in session
A number of local parents said in social media posts they were happy to see their kids return to school, even as other jurisdictions further delayed the return to the classroom. Those parents pointed to the need for education and normal social activity as a positive impact on kids’ mental health as outweighing the risk of catching the virus.
West Vancouver mom Sarah Burke said she's had family members who recently had COVID, but she's still sending her kids to school as she feels its important for their mental health. "This is a very individual journey for each parent," she said, but added allowing her kids to feel optimistic about the future – even in the midst of a pandemic – is important.
“We weighed the risk and benefits for us and sending (our kids) to school and daycare makes sense for our family. . .” wrote one North Vancouver mom, who added all adults in the family have been triple vaccinated. “Our life needs to move along while we have protected ourselves as much as possible.”
“We are all going to get COVID – if not this week, then next, or next month or next year,” wrote another parent. “No matter what the long-term effects are from it, this virus (like many others) is here to stay and spread. Life is always full of risk - staying cooped up and socially isolated for years, not living life and not letting our kids live life is much more damaging for folks than catching COVID is. I am glad schools are opening and they are doing everything they can to keep kid's lives normal.”
But not all parents are convinced the measures do enough to protect students from bringing COVID infections home to their families.
Other parents feel school settings too risky
Yi Yang, a North Vancouver mom, said she won’t be letting her kids, five and eight, go back to school immediately.
With positivity rates of up to 40 per cent on the North Shore, “Realistically, I think anyone going to any indoor places for a whole day will be 100 per cent exposed to COVID,” she said. “COVID is airborne and it's very hard to stop the transmission even with the best efforts.”
Amy Reid is another North Vancouver mom, whose younger daughter has a condition that affects her immune system and who has opted to keep her home this week.
Reid said she home-schooled her two kids last year, but sent them back to school in the fall.
But Omicron has changed the game, she said, and she doesn't have confidence that measures at school will be enough to prevent infections.
Reid said she would have liked to see boosters moved up for teachers as well as higher-level N95 masks provided for teachers and more options for hybrid learning.
Shirley Law, a North Vancouver mom and cancer survivor, said she shares those concerns.
“I really don’t feel there’s any protection at school,” she said.
Stressful time for teachers
Spencer Capier, president of the West Vancouver Teachers Association, acknowledged it’s a stressful time for teachers, particularly as most children in younger age groups haven’t been fully vaccinated.
Capier said teachers would have preferred to see better masks – like KN95s that are a step up from surgical masks – supplied for staff. That would also have helped minimize the possibility of “functional closures” due to staff sickness, he said.