COVID-19 outbreak leads to closure of Lower Mainland school after 20 people test positive
A school in B.C.'s Lower Mainland is closing for more than a week due to a COVID-19 outbreak.
A statement released by Fraser Health Wednesday said Promontory Heights Elementary School in Chilliwack is closed until at least Oct. 3. In-person learning has stopped, but remote learning is being implemented.
The school's principal issued a statement saying the school has "experienced a spike in cases" over the past 10 days. Neither the principal or the health authority said how many cases were recorded at the school before it was closed.
According to Fraser Health's note, unvaccinated staff and students in "affected grades" are required to self-isolate at home. All others are asked to self-monitor for symptoms. In a news release issued the next day, the health authority said 20 cases were identified among staff and students.
The school has 20 cases in total. Eighteen of them are from the last five days according to Dr. Ariella Zbar, a medical health officer with Fraser Health. No one has been hospitalized.
She says there were a number of factors that prompted the closure.
"It was the number of cases, the speed at which they came in and that they were in different grades and nothing to connect them aside from being at the same school," she said in an interview with CTV News.
She added that hundreds of children are now in isolation along with any unvaccinated staff.
The president of the Chilliwack Teachers Association, Danielle Bennett, said she is concerned.
"I am shocked that it is happening so soon. I think there should have been other protocols in place," said Bennett.
"School transmissions are of course reflective of community transmissions and our community unfortunately does not have very high vaccination rates," she said.
But Bennett stopped short of saying that teachers should be mandated to get the vaccine.
"I think that we have to be very careful with mandating vaccines. We encourage all of our membes to be vaccinated. We also have to look at collective agreement provisions and privacy regulations as far as that goes as well," she said.
Dr. Zbar said COVID-19 cases in schools in the eastern Fraser Valley have been on the rise.
"Over 40 per cent of the school cases since schools reopened this year have been in Fraser East and this matches with areas that have low vaccination coverage in the general community," Dr. Zbar explained.
Bennett said she would like to see better COVID-19 protocols in schools such as social distancing and masks for K-3 students.
The school closure comes shortly after provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, backtracked on a policy that saw health authorities stop sending out exposure notices to parents this school year.
"Our teams have recognized that parents need an authoritative source to have an understanding of what's happening at their children's schools," she said earlier this week.
The premier was also asked about the Chilliwack school closure.
"We're doing our level best to make sure anybody who has had direct contact with someone with COVID-19 is advised as quickly as possible," Premier John Horgan said.
The school has shifted to online learning and isn't expected to reopen before October 4.
That has left parents juggling daycare, including Tom McGregor whose son is in Grade 1 at the school.
"We're kind of piece mealing the care,' he explained.
"I've got him. He's going to go down to my wife's work for a little bit. Grandma's going to come. Grandpa's going to come. Auntie's going to come," he said.
McGregor said schools "seem like the perfect breeding ground" for COVID-19 but that his family is taking the closure in stride.
"You kind of roll with the punches with COVID...nobody really knows what's around the corner," he said.
Anyone who develops COVID-19 symptoms should get tested for the disease, Fraser Health says.
The closure comes shortly after provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry announced the province is changing how parents will learn about COVID-19 cases in their schools.
Earlier this month, Henry said B.C. would no longer issue school-wide letters when an individual tested positive for the disease and would only send a notice if there was a cluster or outbreak.
"It was my understanding that there was a level of anxiety from the way that we had given broad school notifications last year," Henry said in a news conference Tuesday.
"But we hear from parents across the province, I hear from educators and our teams have recognized that parents do need an authoritative source to go to have an understanding of what is happening at their children's school."
Henry said her team is still working to develop its new system, but said it would be "less intrusive and more sustainable." Officials hope to have that in place by the weekend.
In response, the BC Teachers' Federation said it was pleased the province is changing its notification policy.
"The decision not to share the data was based on an assumption that was faulty. And so I'm very relieved to hear that there will be data shared," said Teri Mooring, BCTF president.
Parents and staff at Promontory Heights Elementary School will receive more information closer to Oct. 3, letting them know if it's safe to return to in-class learning.
With files from CTV News Vancouver's Regan Hasegawa