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If a kid coughs in the woods…

Rob Shaw: Schools will no longer send email notifications when someone tests positive for COVID-19, which parents and BC's teachers' union view as a step much too soon.

If a COVID-19 case occurs in a BC school and nobody is told about it, does it still matter?

That’s the question facing parents this year as they send their students back to classrooms under changed COVID notification rules.

Schools will no longer send out email notifications whenever a case is recorded with a child. The new policy will be to only publicly report major clusters, exposures or outbreaks.

The change was made in part to reduce anxiety among parents who received many notifications last year, according to the rationale of Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry.

But it has touched on a long-simmering point of contention between Dr. Henry and many others: How the government does, or doesn’t, release public information about COVID-19.

Parent advisory councils and the BC Teachers’ Federation have both criticized the change, saying parents should be getting more, not less, information about the COVID-19 situation in their child’s school.

“I think the rationale about exposure notifications is a little bit insulting,” Mooring told media at a briefing on Monday.

The previous notification helped serve as warnings for parents, teachers and students in certain schools to make sure as many people as possible were vaccinated, she said.

“How are we going to get meaningful and timely data about what’s happening in schools in the absence of those exposure notifications?” Mooring asked. “These are questions that haven’t been answered yet and school starts (Tuesday).”

Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside has defended the move, saying the province’s regular contract tracing system will still notify parents if their child has come into close contact with, or is at risk of possible infection from, someone who has tested positive for COVID-19.

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

The new limited notification is part of BC’s transition into taking a management approach to COVID-19 like any other virus, said Whiteside.

That’s an admirable goal from the minister, and the right direction for the province -- one day.

But we’re not even close to being there yet.

BC just fell back to a mandatory mask mandate, to combat a spike in cases. It has resumed restrictions in the Interior and Northern health regions due to low vaccination rates and an overburdened hospital system. And the province has abandoned a move to “stage four” return to normal Sept. 7.

Yet, for some reason, government is making a policy decision about notifications in schools that assumes none of that is happening and we’re instead moving into a stage of treating COVID-19 like any other disease.

Parents have an understandable desire to know what’s going on in the schools that their children attend. They need more information, not less, especially during a time when the province - indeed the world - is still struggling with a resurgence in COVID-19 variants and cases.

The province shouldn’t take a paternalistic approach to try and manipulate people’s anxiety levels. They aren’t stupid. Being treated that way by a government only makes them more anxious.

Rob Shaw has spent more than 13 years covering BC politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for The Orca. He is the co-author of the national best-selling book A Matter of Confidence, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.

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