Old guidelines for a new threat: B.C. begins school year with fewer COVID-19 protections amid Delta surge

With the school year just days away from bringing thousands of children and teachers into classrooms with questionable ventilation, B.C. is forging ahead with fewer layers of COVID-19 protection than it did last year, even as all new infections are now the more-contagious Delta variant.

CTV News Vancouver made a number of requests for information around ventilation and mitigation of airborne transmission of COVID-19 with the ministries of education, health and WorkSafeBC. Many of the responses were vague while others suggested there has been no reconsideration of how to combat a mutation of the virus that’s much easier to catch and twice as likely to lead to hospitalization. 

None of them gave a clear explanation as to whether they had updated ventilation guidelines (for more frequent air circulation, for example) and WorkSafeBC directed us to a document for communicable disease in Kindergarten to Grade 12 classrooms settings that was last updated sometime in July; at that time Delta accounted for less than half the cases in B.C.

"These rules and regulations, they are out of date and that is creating all kinds of needless risk," said Colin Furness, an assistant professor for the University of Toronto’s faculty of information.

“When you take a large number of kids who cannot be vaccinated and you put them indoors sharing air, without masks until Grade 4, you have conditions by which you will get a lot of child COVID cases -- and I'm struggling to identify what protective factor B.C. has that will make that not happen."

The province’s top doctor insisted that even though there are fewer protections in place for students and teachers than last year, the fact that B.C. kept schools open throughout the second and third waves of the pandemic proved it could be done again.

"We know how to do this,” said Dr. Bonnie Henry, acknowledging that ventilation is important. “The way it is transmitted has not changed, the dose that you need to be infected has gone down. A more transmissible virus means you just need a smaller amount, generally we think that's what it is, a smaller amount can cause infection."

Rolled back infection prevention measures

Last year, the province implemented several COVID-19 safety measures in schools. This included many reduced class sizes, student cohorts, a mask mandate in the final months of the school year for students in Grade 4 to 12, online learning options, and senior grades often following a hybrid online and in-class model. This year the guidelines explicitly state that strict physical distancing is no longer required, masks are only mandatory for staff and students in grade 4 and up and that MERV air filters are only necessary “where possible.” 

It’s a perplexing policy decision when American and British pediatricians and health officials are seeing a surge in pediatric COVID-19 cases that have outstripped hospital resources in the worst-hit areas, with the Delta variant to blame.

“The Delta variant and how much more contagious it is, that is driving our work at the [B.C. Teachers’] Federation,” said president Teri Mooring. “Our concern is that the government and provincial health officer strategies they put in place are based on last year's experience and not on what could happen this year -- we haven't (yet) been in schools with the Delta variant being so prevalent in our communities."

Mooring said there is still much work to do in improving ventilation and airflow in classrooms and it’s unclear whether it’ll be accomplished before the students arrive. However, she praised Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside for advocating for better ventilation measures; when CTV News asked to speak with Whiteside we were told she was unavailable all week.

Former Vancouver School Board chair and prominent education critic, Patti Bacchus, raised similar concerns about safety measures based on outdated information.

"There could've been more done that government chose not to do,” said Patti Bacchus. “Parents who have medically vulnerable kids, kids with developmental disabilities, or (who) may be at higher risk are having to make some really difficult choices about what to do and really feeling left on their own by the lack of safety protocols that are going to be available in schools."

She suggested that parents and teachers voice their concerns and wishes to their local school boards, whom she says are obligated to listen and should feel free to not only meet, but surpass the provincial health officers safety guidelines for schools.

HVAC repairs and some upgrades

When CTV News asked the Ministry of Education whether it acknowledged that while droplet transmission is one method of infection, COVID-19 is also airborne, it refused to answer and directed CTV News to the Ministry of Health instead. B.C.’s public health bodies have been slow to acknowledge aerosol spread of the virus but have been gradually coming around to the widespread scientific consensus. 

While Henry didn’t use the term airborne, she insisted that "ventilation is something we've been looking at from the very beginning, every school in the province has [now] done an assessment."

In a written response, the Ministry of Education claimed that all 1,500 public schools in B.C. are “working on ventilation” and ensuring the heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems are working properly to improve air quality and help reduce the risk of viral transmission.

“WorkSafeBC has confirmed at this time, there is no evidence a building's ventilation system, in good operating condition, contributes to the spread of communicable disease,” wrote a spokesperson. But the ministry wouldn’t produce the documentation to support the claim when asked to provide it. “This past school year, districts used $10 million in federal pandemic-specific funding to upgrade more than 45,000 air or ventilation filters in B.C. schools.”

Reasons for concern

Henry has typically avoided public health orders, preferring to ask people to follow instructions, and then often mandating them as cases grow in a see-saw of regulations – and that’s precisely what parents, teachers and observers are worried about when it comes to infections in schools.

"What we want to avoid is it happening after a bunch of people in the school get sick -- we would rather a proactive approach than a reactive approach," said Mooring.

Furness agreed, adding that schools can be opened with significantly fewer concerns if all children were masked, as they will be once again in Ontario, with the addition of good ventilation, cohorts, extra safety measures for busses and systematic surveillance testing in schools (which B.C. has never done and led to questions about its claims that schools are safe.) 

Henry pointed out the number of pediatric COVID-19 cases in B.C. is holding steady, but Furness warned that the experiences of pediatricians in the U.S. and U.K. as powerful reasons to “fight the war on all fronts” before the Delta variant gets a foothold in our schools as they have there. 

“Almost one per cent of those cases require hospitalization and one per cent doesn't sound like very much but if COVID-19 rips through child populations, the question B.C. needs to ask, and the question that the public needs to ask, is ‘How many pediatric hospital beds do you have?’” Furness said.

“’How many pediatric ICU beds do you have?’ You can't manufacture them and you can't buy them on Amazon, you have the capacity or you don’t and I think it’s very important to do the calculations and ask what level of normal you can have and manage the case influx if and when Delta reaches B.C. in the same way."