Five ways back-to-school is different this year in B.C.

B.C. kids will be returning to school this year with rising vaccination rates but parents won't be able to reserve a spot for their children if they don't want to return to in-class learning right away.

Vancouver Sun 5 minute read September 6, 2021

As parents prepare to return their children to school this week, there are many things that have changed in the post COVID-19 world since this time last year — and with the exception of B.C.’s stellar job rolling out vaccines, it’s mostly not good.

The director general of the World Health Organization reported to the G20 Health Ministers Meeting in Italy on Sunday that “When we met virtually in Riyadh last year, we all hoped that by now the pandemic would be under control.

“But the opposite is true. Many countries continue to face steep increases in cases and deaths, despite the fact that more than five billion vaccines have now been administered worldwide.”

This list of information is not intended to create fear in parents, but highlight how things have changed in a year, understanding that this too shall pass and that vaccination is keeping people who contract COVID-19 out of intensive care units. Children also remain comparatively less affected by the disease (studies by Vancouver Coastal Health and Fraser Health showed that after a resumption of in-class learning in Sept. 2020, schools were not significant sources of COVID-19 transmission.)

Here is a look at five things that will be different for B.C. parents in Sept. 2021 compared to Sept. 2020.


1 — COVID-19 metrics are worse

On Sept. 6, 2020 there were 1,331 active cases in B.C., the rolling average seven-day daily case count was 104, there were 31 people in hospital and 3,765 tests were done with a positive rate of 2.1 per cent.

Fast forward to Sept. 3, 2021 and there were 5,872 active cases, the rolling daily average was 677, there were 215 people in hospital and 13,356 tests were performed with a positive test rate of 5.7 per cent.

A key difference between these two dates is that in Sept. 2020, case counts were driven by the large Fraser Health and Vancouver Coastal Health regions, while case counts are now driven by the smaller Interior Health and Northern Health regions where vaccination rates are lower.


2 — Masks are mandated for this school year, unless your child is in Grade 3 or younger

At the start of the school year in 2020, the first wave of COVID-19 had subsided and while cases were starting to climb slowly masks were not considered to be an integral tool in preventing the spread of COVID-19. It wasn’t until Nov. 19 that provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry introduced a mandatory mask order for all indoor public settings. This was later lifted, but put back in place two weeks ago when the Delta variant continued to drive infection in mostly unvaccinated people in the province.

For schools this year, all staff and anyone visiting a school must wear a mask at all times indoors, while all students in Grade 4 and over also has to wear a mask in school.


3 — There will be no COVID-19 exposure alerts reported for schools this year

Last school year, each of B.C.’s five health authorities were responsible for issuing a COVID-19 exposure statement if a COVID-sick student or staff member had been at school while unwell and there was a risk others may have been exposed. Often, these were released at different intervals and there were no collated records kept. Once the exposure was considered over, the record was removed from the health authority website.

This led to parent groups — in particular the B.C. School COVID Tracker on Facebook — to gather all the information and keep a permanent record.

For this school year, Dr. Henry has announced that schools will be ending the practice of sending out mass emails every time there is a case at a school.

However, B.C.’s Minister of Education Jennifer Whiteside says parents who are worried about schools not sending out exposure notifications this year should know they will be notified if their child has come into contact with someone with COVID-19.

“The health authorities have the contact-tracing ability in place to ensure that process will continue. So we can be very confident that should there be an exposure in school, the family will be notified,” she said last week.

This move pulls the rug from under the B.C. School COVID Tracker, however it remains a good source of information.


4 — Parents will not be able to reserve a spot for their child if they don’t return to school in person

At the start of the 2020 school year, parents were given the option of keeping their child back from school until the start of January and having their spot held.

This is not the case this time. Children are expected to return to in-class learning at their school and spaces won’t be held.


5 — Vaccines, vaccines, vaccines

In Sept. 2020, scientists around the world were starting to make headway on a series of vaccines — the most promising being the mRNA vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna. Three months later, these vaccines were a reality and in mid December B.C.’s rollout began — immunizing the elderly first. As of Sept. 2021 in B.C. 77.1 per cent of people aged 12 and over have been fully immunized with two doses of vaccine.

This shows that a large percentage of kids in Grade 8 and above will be returning to school immunized. There is, however, no timeline on when the vaccines will be deemed appropriate for those aged under 12.

In a letter to parents issued last week, B.C. Teachers Federation president Terri Mooring wrote “given what we know about the highly transmissible (Delta) variant, and that our students under 12 are ineligible to be vaccinated as a means of protection, we need to take a cautious approach when we return to school next week. The government has mandated mask-wearing in schools for adults and students in Grades 4 and up, but that’s not enough to keep everyone safe.

“Parents, we need your help to protect all students in BC’s K-to-12 learning environments. This means ensuring your child gets vaccinated if they are eligible and supporting a culture of mask-wearing for all students who are able, including those in Kindergarten to Grade 3.”