How many COVID-19 cases are being seen in New Westminster schools amidst the Omicron surge?
That question is destined to remain unanswered.
The New West school district, along with all school districts around B.C., is following new public health protocols that mean families will no longer receive notification letters for cases their child may have come in contact with at school.
Up until the winter break, students or staff who were determined to be at risk of COVID-19 exposure could have received one of two letters: a self-monitor letter asking them to be on the lookout for symptoms, or, when deemed necessary, a self-isolation notice requiring them to isolate at home.
The number of those letters issued in New Westminster schools skyrocketed in the month before winter break.
“You see a huge spike in cases from the previous month,” superintendent Karim Hachlaf said, outlining the notification letters sent between Dec. 2 and 29.
In that time frame, the district sent out 88 self-monitor letters, compared to 16 in the month between Nov. 4 and Dec. 1. Fraser River and Glenbrook middle schools saw the largest number of notices, at 25 apiece, while New Westminster Secondary School saw 18.
Self-isolation notices were sent out to 41 individuals and one classroom – up from 13 individuals the previous month. Glenbrook saw 16 self-isolation notices sent out to individuals, while École Qayqayt Elementary School saw isolation notices issued to nine individuals and one class.
But parents shouldn't expect to see any such notification letters this year.
“We can’t sustain that kind of volume, combined by the fact that it just wasn’t achieving any longer the goal of minimizing the spread of COVID-19,” Hachlaf noted.
'Activity signals': 10% school absenteeism, or 25% in one grade
Hachlaf said Omicron’s higher transmissibility and shorter incubation period necessitated a new approach.
Now, as per provincial protocol, the school is monitoring student absenteeism to look for “activity signals” that may indicate the presence of COVID. The district watches for 10% overall absenteeism at schools, or 25% in a particular grade; at that level, the district will engage with public health to see if it needs to act.
It’s also monitoring staff absences, since a 25% staff absence rate may signal the need for a temporary “functional closure” of a school – meaning there aren’t enough staff to keep the school running safely. If such closures happen, families would be informed the day before what would likely be a seven-day closure.
With families no longer having formal notice of cases in schools, the parent-run B.C. School COVID Tracker database – which has been working to provide more transparent data on COVID cases in schools since the beginning of the pandemic – is still posting reported cases.
It’s asking parents to send information about their own families’ cases and positive test results, meaning results are only as complete as the number of families who actually submit information.
In the two weeks since the return from winter break, the COVID Tracker database notes 13 reported cases in New Westminster schools: five at Skwo:wech Elementary, three at Lord Tweedsmuir Elementary, two at École Qayqayt Elementary, one at Glenbrook Middle, one at F.W. Howay Elementary and one at New Westminster Secondary School.