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Limited information, slow contact tracing in schools concerns Greater Victoria parents

Parents continue to crowdsource COVID-19 data in lieu of public information
The parent advisory council for Tillicum elementary in Saanich is among many parent-led groups in Greater Victoria that is using social media and volunteer generated spreadsheets to find accurate and timely information on COVID-19 cases in their school. (SD61/Tillicum Elementary School)

Some Greater Victoria parents say the limited and delayed flow of COVID-19 information at schools is hindering their ability to keep their children safe.

The Tillicum Elementary School parent advisory council is one of many parent-led groups in the region that has taken to social media and spreadsheets to crowdsource information public health authorities aren’t providing.

As soon as a parent at the school confirms their child has COVID-19, they can post to the social media page, including their child’s classroom, what days they last attended, and what symptoms they were displaying. More often than not, the post comes several days before Island Health completes contact tracing, PAC chair Lisa Connell said.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Health told Black Press Media its contact tracing goal is 24 hours, but Connell said it often takes up to a week. This isn’t accounting for days the child may have been attending school without knowing they had the virus.

“It is not as safe as we keep being told,” said Lisa Gelling, the school’s representative to the Victoria Confederation of PACs.

The social media page also provides parents with a fuller picture of the virus in their school, since they would normally only be made aware of specific cases if their child was considered a “close contact.” The ministry defines a close contact as “someone who has been near a person with COVID-19 for at least 15 minutes when health and safety measures were not in place or were insufficient.” This could be someone within two metres of the infected person, or someone who was wearing a non-medical mask near them, for example.

In a classroom of young children, many of whom wear non-medical masks, and all of whom eat with their masks off, it is unclear how public health authorities make these calls.

READ ALSO: ‘Significant milestone:’ COVID vaccine plans for children roll out across the country

Gelling and Connell said their page and live spreadsheet is the only place parents can go to inform their decisions on whether to send their child to school on a given day or week.

“Everyone has a different situation, and they’re the only ones who can make the right decisions for themselves,” Gelling said.

They’ve also found it useful for parents to share their child’s symptoms, some of which – like sore legs – aren’t well known.

“The symptoms are so weird and so mild in these kids, if you don’t know your kid has been exposed you’re much less likely to keep them home and get them tested,” Gelling said.

Of course, the page can only capture information from parents who are a part of it, so Gelling and Connell know they still don’t have the whole picture. Island Health did not respond to questions asking whether it has considered providing parents with complete information to avoid fragmented data.

The ministry has previously said it restricts what information is released publicly to respect privacy and reduce anxiety. When public health authorities do report COVID-19 exposures, they only list the school and potential dates, not specific classrooms or how many cases there are.

Connell said their sharing of information helps alleviate stress.

“We’re trying to take away the stigma. The more information we can share the more informed we can be,” she said. The page also serves as a support network when families do fall ill, with people volunteering to deliver groceries or supplies, Connell added.

She and Gelling are calling for public health authorities to share more information with school communities and make rapid tests available to children when a COVID-19 case is discovered in their classroom.

So far they say, it feels like their requests are falling on deaf ears.

READ ALSO: B.C. waiting for new rapid tests to be approved before large-scale rollout in schools

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About the Author: Jane Skrypnek

I'm a provincial reporter for Black Press Media after starting as a community reporter in Greater Victoria.
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