B.C.'s top doctor rejects idea to shut down schools amid surging COVID-19 cases

Dr. Bonnie Henry says she has no plans to shutdown B.C. schools despite a persistent surge of new cases of COVID-19.

Thousands of school exposures have been reported since the start of the school year.

“We've talked about that we've been in touch with our counterparts in the Ministry of Education, with the superintendents with the school districts, and principals and teachers,” said Henry on Tuesday.

The hardest hit district has been Surrey, where transmission within the community has been the highest.

"My concern is that they just want to keep it going exactly the way it is, regardless of the number of cases,” said Matt Westphal, president of the Surrey Teachers’ Association.

Henry says her team has been working with Surrey Schools and officials revamped COVID-19 safety plans over spring break.

She didn’t give specifics on what some of those changes were, but noted some teachers have been immunized.

Surrey teachers in the hardest hit schools were moved to the front of the vaccine queue last month, but not everyone was immunized.

The program to inoculate front-line workers with the AstraZeneca vaccine has been put on hold over concerns about rare blood clots in people under the age of 55.

"Some people are kind of reaching a breaking point in terms of all the different things that they've gone through this year,” Westphal told CTV News.

The province rolled out its five-stage framework in the summer, outlining expectations for elementary, middle and secondary schools during COVID-19.

Many teachers want to know how bad the situation had to get in order for the province to move into the next phase.

“All this year, we've been in Stage 2, whether the cases are zero per week or over 1,000 per week. And there's really been no sense, they've never communicated any criteria they will use to move to a different stage,” said Westphal.

Meantime, Toronto is shutting down its schools beginning Wednesday for the next two weeks in an effort to reduce transmission.

Ontario is already in the midst of a month-long province-wide shutdown to combat rising COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.

The province reported more than 3,000 new cases yesterday.

“We've seen in Ontario that now it's about a 60 per cent of all of the new cases are with the B.1.1.7 strain in Ontario. We're probably a month or so behind Ontario and getting there,” said Henry.

Despite that, she doesn’t believe closing schools is the solution.

“What we have also learned is that we see cases go up when children are not in school and that is often because they have other unstructured time and that children need school, we know that it is a safe place for them.”

The B.C. Teachers' Federation is concerned the province is not being proactive enough in its approach.

“We should err on the side of prevention, not just reacting to what's happening. So if we can see that the case counts are going to get worse, and the variant is going to become more of a factor, we need to be seriously examining moving, at least regionally, to a hybrid model, or an online model,” said Teri Mooring, president of the B.C. Teachers’ Federation.

She’d also like the province to release more COVID-19 data on schools.

“We don't know how many of those exposure notifications are leading to in school transmissions. We are anecdotally told that the transmission rates in schools are low. We have no data on that,” Mooring told CTV News.

Mooring says the lack of transparency is causing a lot of anxiety.

“This data is readily available in other jurisdictions just not in B.C. That is also adding to the stress levels when teachers continuously get notification exposure notifications.”