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Dozens sign open letter urging 'safe return to school' amid respiratory illness concerns

With students returning to B.C. classrooms in four weeks, an open letter to the province is outlining five things the signatories say must be addressed to ensure "a safe return to school."

The letter is addressed to Premier David Eby, Health Minister Adrian Dix, Education Minister Rachna Singh and to all parents in the province.

Protect Our Province BC – an advocacy group of physicians, nurses, health scientists, health policy specialists and community members – published the letter with 54 signatures on Tuesday.

“Put government on notice: we're watching. Don't screw it up again for B.C. children and their families this year,” said Lyne Filiatrault, a retired emergency room physician and member of PoP BC.

“We risk a rinse and repeat of last year if we don't act early and put precautions in place.”

The letter warns of a potentially deadly “tripledemic,” in which children in B.C. would be impacted by COVID-19, respiratory syncytial virus and the flu.

Filatrault said in 2022, pediatric emergency departments in the province were overwhelmed and kids were absent from school due to being home sick.

Last winter, over the span of two weeks, six children died from flu-related illnesses: One under the age of five, three between five and nine years old, and two between the ages of 15 and 19. 

“Thing we still don't talk about is that every infection puts you at risk of other infections because it affects your immune system. OK, so why was RSV so hard last year? Why was influenza so severe last year?” Filatrault questioned.

"Scientists are believing that the (SARS-CoV-2) virus is causing immune suppression and putting us at risk of viruses and bacteria that used to not be a big deal, and suddenly they're a big deal.”


The letter lists five things to ensure a safe return to school.

PoP BC believes classrooms should be well-ventilated and the air should be clean. It urges the B.C. government to provide reporting on indoor air quality, adding that other jurisdictions – such as Boston Public Schools – have already been doing this for the past two years.

The group would also like to see masking return to classrooms and says high-quality masks should be provided by the province for free.

Thirdly, it would like to see the province acknowledge that the virus that causes COVID-19 is airborne, hence the need for ventilation and masking.

“We are in 2023 and B.C. public health is still telling the public to wash their hands against an airborne virus. It's an embarrassment. It's a complete embarrassment,” Filatrault said.

A recent internal Health Canada memo revealed Ottawa is sitting on a stockpile of 39 million COVID rapid tests.

PoP BC would like to see the province hand out more rapid tests and provide better education on how to use the tests.

Lastly, it would like to see a better rollout of vaccinations against COVID-19 and the flu to ensure families are protected early in the flu season.

Last year, walk-in vaccination clinics were not open until the weekend of Dec. 9, after the six children had already died from flu-related illness, Filatrault said.

“Getting your flu vaccine doesn't mean you're protected, it takes another two weeks for you to develop antibodies and be protected. So, it was a complete snafu. I'm surprised nobody got fired,” she said of last year’s rollout.

Another goal of the letter is to inform parents it is critical to work together to protect every child, she said.

“We're telling parents don't wait on government to get it right. Protect your children. And it's not by acting individually, it's by acting collectively,” she said. “So don't send your kid to school if they're sick. Get them vaccinated as soon as possible against the flu or against COVID and stock up on rapid tests.”


CTV News Vancouver contacted both the Ministry of Health and Ministry of Education for comment.

The Ministry of Health responded in an email, saying: “Keeping students, staff, and teachers safe in schools is our top priority.”

Since 2020, the province and Ottawa have spent $219.4 million to help school districts in B.C. upgrade their ventilation and filtration systems.

For the upcoming school year, $41 million is earmarked to upgrade heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems.

“As (provincial health officer) Dr. (Bonnie) Henry has said throughout the pandemic, masks are protective equipment, but they are only as effective as we make them. They are a tool we can use as appropriate and when necessary,” the ministry said.

It did not address whether masks will be brought back in classrooms, but said it has a committee that meets weekly to review what’s happening in schools and monitor absenteeism.

A fall vaccination campaign will be rolled out with an updated COVID-19 vaccine, and more details will be released in the coming weeks, the ministry said.

It said rapid antigen tests are available at select pharmacies.

The ministry did not, however, address calls to acknowledge the virus is spread in the air.

It did remind people to practice “good respiratory etiquette and hand hygiene.” Top Stories

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