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School year begins with COVID-19 still part of planning process

Classes resume without the divided learning groups and physical distancing seen last year in School District 73.
South Sa-Hali secondary school COVID
In May of 2020, South Sa-Hali elementary Grade 2 teacher Barb Niwa prepared for students to return to her classroom, with new safety measures now in place. Those measures were kept in place as the 2020-2021 school year began in September. Classes resumed this week following winter break, with five COVID-19 exposures in five schools thus far.

Students are now back in schools, but what was supposed to be a mostly normal school year remains hindered by COVID-19 and concerns over the well-being of pupils.

This school year will begin without the divided learning groups and physical distancing seen last year in School District 73.

“There is a cloud hanging over this year, of course. We had hoped there’d be more of a focus on preventative measures in school this year,” BC Teachers’ Federation president Teri Mooring said.

Although B.C. has the protection of relatively high vaccination rates, those under the ages of 12 still cannot be vaccinated and vaccination rates remain lower among eligible school-aged children.

In Kamloops, which is divided into north and south areas, only 53 per cent of children ages 12 to 17 have received both doses in the north and 69 per cent in the south, according to BC Centre for Disease Control data.

As of late, daily case rates have been high in the province, with the more transmissible Delta variant spreading quickly.

In Interior Health, the region has recently seen record-high cases and outbreaks have returned. Kamloops, meanwhile, recorded its highest-ever weekly number of infections — 249 — from Aug. 22 to Aug. 28.

Guidelines implemented by the province two weeks ago include masks for all school staff and for Grade 4 to Grade 12 students and the requirement of a non-COVID-specific communicable disease prevention plan, which SD73 has created and posted on its website, online at sd73.bc.ca.

Mooring has also taken issue with the mask mandate, arguing no rationale has been given as to why it doesn’t also include children from kindergarten to Grade 3.

“We’re seeing in other jurisdictions that this is necessary and we’re seeing the K-12 mask mandate in place in so many other provinces,” Mooring said.

But students in Interior Health will also see additional measures. In a Sept. 1 letter to district superintendents and principals, the health authority said schools will also need to restrict indoor assemblies to 50 people (or two classes) and visitors are restricted to those who are supporting school activities.

Spectators for school sports have also been limited to 50 people indoors and 100 people outdoors.

But in School District 73, administrators have opted not to allow spectators at public events, according to a message from superintendent Rhonda Nixon.

“We are intentionally taking a cautious approach to such activities to assist everyone to adjust to school start-up,” Nixon wrote in a Sept. 3 update sent to parents.

Interior Health also plans to hold vaccination clinics in schools throughout September in order to further boost vaccination rates. Dates for Kamloops schools have not been posted at interiorhealth.ca.

Another of Mooring’s concerns is the lack of exposure notifications this year.

Previously, health authorities had posted exposure notifications when one or more students or staff was sick with COVID-19 in school during their contagious period.

But on Sept. 1, provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said that exposure notification system will no longer be used, arguing it was causing anxiety. Henry said health authorities will continue to report clusters and outbreaks.