Getting in the HoCOVID spirit, students give their own public COVID notification Saturday at a party for Dalhousie's homecoming.

Breaking the silence on COVID exposures in schools during the fourth wave

The standard has been for only people within a “school community” to be informed of potential risks, but that is changing.

In the first 27 days of September, Nova Scotia announced 535 new COVID-19 cases. How many of those were at elementary and high schools, colleges and universities, we simply don’t know.

This is because the Nova Scotia government doesn’t require exposure notifications to be issued to the public if everyone who was at an event or location can be contacted individually. Workplaces like offices (and notably last year the Irving Shipyard) don’t have to report COVID cases publicly. Neither do private events like weddings or concerts, if everyone left their name and number when they arrived or bought a ticket. And the same is true for schools, all thanks to the magic of email. At the primary and secondary school levels, information about COVID cases from kindergarten through Grade 12 has been issued to parents and students alike through email lists.

Thanks to the grapevine of moms and other caregivers, these emails eventually make their way to the Nova Scotia Parents for Public Education Facebook group, which is now 21,000 members strong. As of September 27, there have been 39 releases reported through the page, the majority of those—35 of the 39—coming since last Monday, September 20.

“Multiple teachers have let me know, they were not informed about cases in their schools,” says Stacey Rudderham, admin of the group, in a post. “Some substitute teachers, specialists and others have moved between schools without knowing they may have been exposed. They found out from our group post.”

But at the post-secondary level, there is no official or unofficial group collecting notices, and universities and colleges are similarly not required to issue them to the public—only to staff, faculty and students who may have been exposed.

For universities that have buildings and other spaces open to the public, this could lead to community members, who may have been on campus for a meeting or a walk, not receiving a COVID exposure warning when they should’ve. Not to mention other students interacting in hallways and over meals. A large school presents a fantastically complicated array of options for people to bump into each other, a reality that doesn’t seem particularly well suited to targeted email notifications.

The Coast reached out to several Halifax post-secondary institutions to see if they would reveal how many COVID cases are on campus this fall, and how they’re notifying their communities—and the wider Halifax community—about potential exposures.

Dalhousie University said in an email on September 22 that “it is Public Health that releases numbers and exposures in Nova Scotia as they see appropriate, in consideration also to privacy and confidentiality of those who may have been given a positive covid diagnosis.”

Dalhousie says on its website that 97 percent of its students and 98 percent of its staff are fully vaccinated, and associate director of media relations Janet Bryson also told The Coast that Dal’s “ongoing planning and efforts are based on a provincial framework, approved by Nova Scotia Public Health.” The strategy has “multiple layers of protection, including proof of vaccination or twice weekly testing requirements.”

But two days after that email, Dalhousie released its first public exposure notice, for the Wallace McCain Learning Commons on September 20 between 4 and 5pm. A few days later it released a second notice, for the Killam Library over a three-day period. These didn’t come from the province’s public health department.

While it’s unclear if there have been more exposure notices sent on Dal campus this year, the university is encouraging everyone to get tested frequently, even more so after this weekend’s large homecoming party. Without public notifications, however, it will be hard to guess where HoCo ends and HoCOVID starts.

Across town, Saint Mary’s University communications manager Cale Loney says SMU hasn’t issued any “exposure notifications,” but it has sent four “precaution notifications” to students and staff.

“The university was asked to contact those community members in the space directly impacted by the precaution notification on a specific date and time,” Loney says in an email. “The university follows the guidance of Public Health in who we contact in these cases. As always, Public Health reaches out directly to those they deem as close contacts.”

SMU reports that 95 percent of its students are fully vaccinated, and Loney says community members who were not considered close contacts are not required to self-isolate unless they develop symptoms.

Mount Saint Vincent University on the Bedford Highway announced its first COVID exposure of the semester on September 27, posting on its website that "Broader notification is not required by Public Health in this type of circumstance, but given this is our first known incidence of COVID-19 on campus this term, we wanted you to hear about it from the University."

MSVU doesn't specify where on campus or when the exposure was, but says all close contacts were notified today.

On the other side of the harbour, Nova Scotia Community College told The Coast it has had two exposures at its HRM campuses, one at Ivany Campus on September 21 and one at Akerley Campus on September 23. There was also a potential exposure at the NSCC Pictou campus on September 19.

“An email was sent when we learned of a positive case and, when possible, there is also direct follow up by those who are supervisors to individuals affected,” says communications manager Kathleen Cameron. “Public Health follows up regarding close contacts of the individual. If there is a particular group on campus affected, Public Health has sent a letter that they direct us to share with anyone affected as it relates to our campus community.”

Cameron tells The Coast via email that exposure notices were sent to two classes at Ivany, one at Pictou and “the entire community” for anyone in the cafeteria at a certain time at Akerley. NSCC says it can’t disclose whether the cases are staff, students or another community member, but Cameron does say if public health wanted a public exposure notice issued the school would be on board with that. “If NSHA advises that the exposure requires a public service announcement as part of their COVID exposure notifications, we would support that with our own public notification.”

But right now that’s not the case, for university students at least. For elementary, middle and high schools, parents and community members can expect notifications to finally be made at least somewhat public.

In a note at the top of today’s standard daily COVID report, the province said “Nova Scotia will begin reporting the number of schools with cases of COVID-19 daily, starting tomorrow, Sept. 28.”

Kristen Lipscombe, a media relations advisor for the province, says “A list of schools with potential exposures will also be made available online.” But it’ll take until tomorrow to learn exactly how much detail will be given.

About The Author

Victoria Walton

Once a freelancer, Victoria has been a full-time reporter with The Coast since April 2020, covering everything from COVID-19 to small business to politics and social justice. Originally from the Annapolis Valley, she graduated from the University of King’s College School of Journalism in 2017.

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