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Transmission of COVID-19 in schools still ‘very unlikely,’ Dr. Bonnie Henry says

Despite widespread concern about transmission of COVID-19 in schools, Dr. Bonnie Henry said the data so far suggests schools are a “very safe” place to be during the pandemic.

The provincial health officer presented modelling Wednesday showing that while there have been hundreds of cases where staff and students were potentially exposed to the novel coronavirus, only a small fraction of those have actually led to transmission.

“The data shows us that we are not seeing schools being a place where transmission spreads widely,” Henry said.

“When the safety protocols that are in place in schools are followed, it is a very safe environment and transmission is very unlikely.”

She said that school-aged children currently represent about 12 per cent of B.C.’s COVID-19 caseload, and that figure has remained relatively constant since the beginning of the pandemic. To date, four outbreaks have been declared in B.C. schools, but fewer than seven in 1,000 school-aged children have tested positive for the virus.

Between Nov. 1 and Dec. 18, there were 526 exposure events in B.C. schools, the vast majority of which were in the Vancouver Coastal and Fraser health regions. About three-quarters of COVID-19 cases in schools have been in students, while the rest were in staff.

In the Vancouver Coastal Health region, about 600 school-aged children and school staff have tested positive for the virus, resulting in fewer than 200 exposure events in schools.

“In almost 90 per cent of cases, they acquired their infection outside of the schools, primarily from household contacts,” Henry said.

covid 19 children
A Dec. 23 graphic from the B.C. Centre for Disease Control breaks down COVID-19 cases in school-aged children. (B.C. Centre for Disease Control )

Only 10 per cent of the exposure events led to transmission within the school environment, generally to about one or two people, she added.

“Most transmission events involve staff members to each other. As we know, adults are more likely to transmit this to each other,” Henry said.

In the Fraser Health region, 384 schools have had exposure events, but only about 13 per cent of those schools have seen potential transmission of COVID-19.

‘We know it is challenging’

Henry said that she knows there’s been a lot of anxiety about kids returning to the classroom, but she believes it’s important for their long-term growth and development to have in-person interactions with their teachers and other students.

In November when cases were spiking across the province and health authorities were having trouble keeping up with the number of exposure events in schools, Henry assembled a task force of superintendents, teachers, parents and health professionals to look at whether B.C.’s back-to-school plan was working as it should.

“We know it is challenging. We know that kids don’t always want to wear their masks even when they’re in the hallways. We know that the cohort system in some places works better than others,” Henry said.

“All of this is being looked at and we’re looking at all the best advice we can to support schools and the school community when we reopen again in January.”

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