No plans to change B.C.'s back-to-school plan despite Delta variant surge

While her counterpart in Ontario unveiled a cautious plan to get students back in the classroom, B.C.’s top doctor is sticking with a plan announced before the last school year had even ended – and well before the Delta variant began setting back reopening plans across the globe. 

CTV News asked Dr. Bonnie Henry whether the steady growth in cases and increase of the prevalence of the ultra-contagious Delta variant to more than 60 per cent of cases in British Columbia, and the fact students under 12 are still not eligible for vaccines, had prompted her to consider changes to the plan for the start of school.

Henry said she doesn’t “currently” intend on changing the back-to-school plan.

“Obviously we'll be continuing to work with our provincial committee on what are the things we need to have in place to make the school year as normal as possible for children," she said.

“We know how challenging this past couple of years was, this past school year was -- particularly how important it was for school families and school communities -- for students to have in-school learning."

The most recent document and guidance for the return to school from the B.C. Centre for Disease Control is dated June 17.

The document says the centre anticipates that “by the start of the 2021-22 school year, the incidence of COVID-19 is expected to be consistently lower in B.C.” But this already not the case, as the province appears to be entering a fourth wave instead. 

Cohorts are not recommended, extracurricular activities are expected to return to normal, and while it considers the risk of COVID transmission from surfaces to be “low,” the only reference to ventilation includes the regular operation of the HVAC systems rather than requiring HEPA or other advanced air filtration.

“Additional guidance for topics not covered here, including but not limited to personal protective equipment (including masks), staff-only spaces and transportation will be addressed in the August update,” note the authors.

ONTARIO'S PLAN

Unlike B.C., Ontario spent the end of the school year with students learning from home, so its approach is geared at getting kids back to school and keeping them there for the duration of the school year, though there are exceptions for outbreaks in classrooms.

The province’s chief medical officer of health told reporters that cohorts would continue, but extracurricular activities could resume with mask mandatory for all students, except kindergartners.

“Our goal is to have a safe reopening of schools that lasts the entire academic year. Wearing a mask is a proven way to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19," said Dr. Kieran Moore.

University of Toronto epidemiologist Colin Furness urged policymakers to focus on air quality rather than hand-washing.

“We’ve known COVID has been airborne for a year, that’s plenty of time (to prepare),” he said. “I’m worried about kids in the ICU if they end up in schools with lousy ventilation.”

Early Tuesday evening, the Ministry of Education responded to CTV News's request that morning to speak with the minister, saying she was unavailable and reiterating a funding commitment of $43.6 million for enhanced cleaning an mental health services; none of the funding is directed to improving air quality and the ministry's response has no mention of ventilation.

According to data from the Public Health Agency of Canada, B.C. had 24 active cases per 100,000 residents versus 10 per 100,000 for Ontario as of July 30, more than twice as many infections per capita.

WARNINGS FROM THE U.S.

That’s precisely the warning from American doctors seeing the Delta variant wreaking havoc in states with low vaccination rates and skyrocketing infections.

"There was a myth that circulated during the first year of the pandemic that children were immune, there were people who said children don't get the disease, they can't transmit the disease -- we know those were fallacies all along, but particularly now that the Delta variant has emerged it has become clear that children are heavily impacted by this organism,” said New Orleans Children’s Hospital physician-in-chief Dr. Mark Kline.

“The Delta variant of COVID, is every infectious disease specialist and epidemiologist’s worst nightmare."

But Henry downplayed the variant and its risk to students when vaccinations are high enough to keep community infection rates low.

“We also know that the school setting is not a high-risk environment for transmission and what we see in the schools reflects what's going on in the community,” she insisted. “That's why it's so important for all of us to be immunized, everyone who's eligible."

B.C. had a seven-day rolling average of just 35 cases in early July, but it has now soared to 196. The COVID-19 resources on the BC Children’s Hospital website don’t include any reference or guidance on the Delta variant. 

While hospitalizations and deaths remain low as vaccinations prevent serious infections, doctors and scientists have no idea how effective the vaccines are against long COVID and are urging people to be cautious to avoid infection, for example, recommending mask usage indoors even though it’s not required.