Schools a good place for kids during pandemic – for now: top B.C. health officer

Schools to stay open following spring break but remain on alert, Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry says

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix provide an update on COVID-19 in B.C. Photograph By Province of B.C. / Flickr

B.C. schools plan to remain open after spring break amid the coronavirus pandemic, but will stay “on alert during a rapidly changing situation,” said Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry Thursday.

That’s in stark contrast to Henry’s direction to event organizers in British Columbia to immediately cancel or postpone public gatherings larger than 250 people, until further notice.

That means no Vancouver Canucks games or Monster Jam this weekend. And B.C. families, as like all other B.C. residents, are being advised to cancel vacations outside of the country.

Henry said with a two-week spring break commencing Friday “we have a period of time when we can be thoughtful and investigate around schools.”

Henry said keeping schools open for now still provides a safe place for children during the pandemic. She elaborated that schools are undergoing special cleaning and children are being provided with “heightened” health education opportunities, including frequent hand washing.

“If there are risks in schools absolutely we will close them. Otherwise we need to look at how we can make schools safe,” said Henry, adding additional measures such as alternating classrooms could be imposed.

“We’re going to use spring break to consult with stakeholders to come up with appropriate policies and procedures with respect to staff and students upon return,” said Health Minister Adrian Dix, alongside Henry during an information session with media in Victoria.

Already, however, Surrey School District stated it had to close Coast Meridian elementary school on Tuesday for disinfection after “a member of the school community” tested positive for COVID-19. And earlier in the week parents at Sullivan Heights secondary and Serpentine Heights elementary were notified of an infected person coming into contact with the facilities. Again, a “deep clean protocol” was conducted, said the district on its website.

Henry said a balance between taking precautions and keeping life going is needed.  She said closing schools could cause much greater social and economic upheaval, as opposed to closing public gatherings — which she had advised against earlier this week.

“Society can’t stop we need to keep going,” said Henry, who repeated the need for hyper-vigilance around social distancing, hand washing and self-isolation for those experiencing symptoms similar to the cold and flu.

Ontario announced Thursday it has cancelled classes for two weeks following its one-week spring break commencing Friday.

Education Minister Rob Fleming told Glacier Media Thursday he is taking direction from Henry and the B.C. Centre for Disease Control.

“Our provincial medical health officer Bonnie Henry is working with all 60 districts and public institutions in British Columbia to make determinations," Fleming said. "The Centre for Disease Control is also assessing. They’re still looking at schools as low risk areas. Bear in mind Ontario has a one-week break so they’re essentially planning a three-week school closure."

Henry announced Thursday that there were seven new COVID-19 cases in B.C., putting the total number to 53. Of concern is an outbreak of three cases at West Vancouver’s Hollyburn House, a long-term seniors care facility.

“While the risk in B.C. hasn’t changed much the risk all around us has,” said Henry.

The government also announced an advisory to not travel outside the country, including the U.S.

“We recommend against all non-essential travel," Dix said. "That means no trips for milk cartons, no trips to Disneyland, nor Berlin nor Boise."

Henry said the community spread in the U.S. is more serious than in B.C. to date.

“This is something that’s gone beyond what they thought they were dealing with. It is very challenging with the system they have to catch up,” Henry said.

She said and Dix tweeted that those who travel outside of the country are “required” to self-isolate. But Dix told media that there is no legal enforcement mechanism to self-isolate and self-isolation is voluntary but recommended. Government workers, such as teachers, however can be told to stay home, Henry said.

She said doing outdoor activities is advisable at this point, so long as usual sanitary measures are followed.

Dix reiterated that calling the 811 health line will continue to be available. He downplayed concerns that it has been inundated with calls but said more nurses will be added to the line.