Dave Eberwein, superintendent of schools for School District 63, says no schools in the district are close to functional closure in the face of the Omicron variant.
While the variant seems to cause less severe cases of COVID-19 than previous ones, Omicron’s higher infectiousness means it has spread more easily, prompting district concerns about the availability of teachers and staff and among parents over whether to send children to school, especially those with partial or no vaccination.
“Right now we don’t have any schools close to a functional closure,” Eberwein told Black Press Media. “We are monitoring staff attendance on a twice-a-day basis. So far we have been able to manage the absences with on-call or replacement staff.”
Current protocols define a functional closure as the temporary school shutdown due to a lack of staff to provide the necessary level of teaching, supervision, support and/or custodial service to ensure the health and safety of students.
Those protocols developed by provincial officials respond to the nature of the Omicron variant with consequences for the reporting of COVID-19 cases at schools.
“With higher levels of community transmission, a shorter virus incubation period and the increased use of rapid antigen testing, contact tracing and close contact notification by public health is not effective to minimize spread of COVID-19,” it reads.
That provincial strategy means schools do not receive notification about positive COVID-19 cases from either parents or Island Health, Eberwein said.
“What we do have are absentee rates and … if parents have indicated that a child is ill, then we record that,” he said. Recorded reasons for illness could be COVID-related, “but it could also be the flu, it could also be some other illness.”
Protocols now focus on being aware of symptoms and self-management, Eberwein said.
School administrators monitor so-called activity signals, such as school attendance 10 per cent below norm or if fewer than 75 per cent of students in any grade attend. When they appear, school districts are expected to notify the education ministry and work with health officers and others.
In light of new reporting protocols, many parents have turned to the B.C. School COVID Tracker, an independent platform detailing COVID-19 cases at schools. Its sourcing consists of verified documents supplied to the site.
Eberwein said he understands why the website exists.
“Unfortunately, the information won’t be entirely accurate, because it is based on individuals submitting their own information,” he said. “One of the challenges with a website like that is it can provide inaccurate information and perhaps instill a sense of uncertainty in people. We rely on the information provided by the BCCDC in terms of general health information.”
Eberwein appreciates the desire to have accurate COVID-19 case counts. Infection rates present in the general community would be similar to infection rates in schools, which reflect their community, he said. “It is difficult to get exact numbers of the profile that this virus is showing us.”
In general, Eberwein said, residents can take comfort in high local vaccination rates. According to the BCCDC, 94 per cent of eligible Saanich Peninsula residents over 12 have received two vaccination shots. The Peninsula also has one of the highest vaccination rates in the province for children aged five to 11, with 71 per cent having received their first shot.
Ongoing safety protocols designed to keep schools open and safe also offer comfort, he added.
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