How do you make sure Ontario’s two million students are? back to school January 17?
Try N95s for all teachers and staff. Improve ventilation. Make sure everyone who is eligible has received theirs COVID-19 vaccines and boosters. Keep testing. And continue to track cases in schools and report them publicly.
It is the list of must-haves from educators, school officials and other experts who say that without these improvements, online learning will expand after the date Prime Minister Doug Ford recently announced in mid-January.
Ontario students are already suffering to be home and learning in front of a screen again as they have spent more time outside of teaching than anyone else in North America since the pandemic began.
Some safety items – upgraded masks, multiple HEPA devices – are already on the way and priority vaccine clinics are underway.
“Our hope is that sooner rather than later we will get the N95s in the hands of our education professionals, and we will get quick tests implemented so we know where the cases are to keep the cases out of the schools as much as we possibly can. Said Cathy Abraham, president of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association.
“We need to get the kids back to school – we hear that this time has been a little harder, for the most part, and the kids want to get back to school.”
Sources have told Star that the government is considering sending just that high school students back on the 17th, due to higher vaccination rates for their age group. But there is consensus that children should learn, personally, as soon as possible for the sake of their mental health and well-being and academic needs – including a prayer from business leaders who published a full-page ad in Star that made their case with a similar list of things the government needs to do to make that return safe.
“Why do we have to beg for the absolute minimum that will help protect us and our children?” said Mississauga’s mother and teacher Allyson Bradley, whose daughters are seven and four. “I feel like we’re doing more to keep peanuts out of our schools than to keep COVID out.”
While the measures announced so far provide Bradley with some consolation, she said: “I can not believe it took so long.”
Education Minister Stephen Lecce told Star “Ontario has consistently improved our measures to keep schools as safe as possible, and goes beyond public health guidance – including by accelerating boosters for education and childcare workers, implementing N95s for both, three-layer masks for all students and children, stricter screening, air conditioning improvements in each school with more than 70,000 HEPA filter units in schools since early September, as well as 2,000 expected new staff hired to support safer schools. “
The Star contacted the province, school boards and public health officials to find out what is being done to ensure a safer return to school – and what else needs to happen.
Ontario provides N95 masks to all school and child care staff as an option along with the surgical masks previously provided – believed to be the only province to do so.
“What we hear from our school boards is that the masks have started to arrive and that they will be distributed according to each board’s own way of doing things,” Abraham said. “They are a step up and safer than what we have used in the past. We are happy about that.”
Public boards in the Toronto and York region have already supplied masks to schools. Brendan Browne, director of the Toronto Catholic District School Board, said the masks began arriving Friday and “will be in all our locations by Monday.”
The province’s chief medical officer has said that quality masks will be given in three layers to children at the school, although some are also calling for N95s for students. Masks are mandatory for all children in class 1 and up.
The province has already told schools to resume active daily COVID screening, and on Friday updated the COVID-19 symptom School Screening Tool for student, staff and visitors with a more sensitive list of symptoms for daily active screening of all students and staff in schools and childcare. Previous symptoms of concern included fever and / or chills; cough or barking cough (cross); shortness of breath; decrease or loss of taste or odor; and nausea, vomiting and / or diarrhea. The updated screen includes new symptoms such as sore throat or difficulty swallowing, runny or stuffy nose, headache, extreme fatigue; muscle pain or joint pain.
“Anyone who has symptoms suggestive of COVID-19 or is a confirmed positive case should isolate themselves, regardless of vaccination status,” Deputy Secretary of Education Nancy Naylor wrote in a note to school boards. “These strengthened screening requirements are another way in which we help protect students, education and child care workers, and children in child care from COVID-19.”
The province – which has provided $ 600 million for school ventilation upgrades in the past year – has also already provided boards with 70,000 HEPA air filters, with 3,000 more to serve about 4,800 schools. It has also provided funds for boards to evaluate all schools, and 99 percent of schools now use higher quality filters or change filters more often.
Schools without mechanical ventilation are required to have a HEPA filter in every classroom and room, such as a gym or library. All kindergarten classes must have HEPA units, regardless of the ventilation system in the school.
The Toronto District School Board has more than 16,000 units in use and is set to receive more, while York’s government board will receive an additional 116 HEPA filter units, which will be prioritized for special education students who participate personally during the closures. Peel’s public board will receive an additional 130 HEPA units.
Browne said the Toronto Catholic board already has HEPA filters in all classrooms, offices and common areas and will use extras to “strengthen what we have in place.”
Critics have said the government should have funded more school ventilation upgrades months ago as major projects like it take months to procure and complete.
Daily initial doses of COVID vaccines for children aged 5-11 years have risen to less than 5,000 a day in Ontario after a strong start, down from a peak of nearly 30,000 on December 4th. Less than half of children in this age group have a first dose.
Boards have held clinics in schools to increase the number of children, and efforts will increase in the coming weeks. Last week, the province rolled out priority booster clinics for educators, starting in the Greater Toronto area.
On Saturday, Lecce and Attorney General Sylvia Jones will announce a series of new clinics that will provide, for the third time, seven days a week to education and child care staff, and Toronto Zoo will host a mass vaccination effort. About 10 clinics in the Greater Toronto-Hamilton area will also be open seven days a week at the Eaton Center and other Toronto locations, as well as in Mississauga, Richmond Hill, Vaughan, Pickering, Oakville, Hamilton and Brampton.
Last December, Lecce announced that about 11 million rapid antigen tests would be sent home to students for use during the holidays.
“Nearly 18 million rapid tests have been sent to schools and childcare centers across the province since the start of the pandemic, and we are working to make rapid antigen tests available to support the ongoing operation of childcare centers and schools when they return to personal learning. ,” he said.
“Distribution (of rapid testing) is currently a priority for our most vulnerable sectors … with the aim of conserving critical human health resources and protecting individuals working and living in the highest risk environments,” said Alexandra Hilkene, spokeswoman for the Minister of health.
“Once Ontario has received an adequate supply of rapid tests, the province intends to make it more accessible to child care centers and schools.”
The province has limited access to laboratory-based PCR testing for those on the front line, and educators are not included, though many lobby for that to change.
Before the winter break, boards received PCR test kits to deliver about 10 percent of the enrollment. These take-home PCR tests are available to students and staff who are symptomatic. At present, boards have not received information on additional test terms or requirements.
Until the province increases its supply of rapid antigen tests, it says the PCR self-collection test option in schools will continue to focus on students and staff developing symptoms commonly associated with COVID-19 while in school.
Reporting of case counts
In recent days, many were shocked to learn one provincial note outlined changes to many COVID-19 protocols in schools, including no longer requiring provincial reporting of COVID cases, meaning cohort-based layoffs would no longer occur.
But Ontario is not the only province stopping this practice – Nova Scotia, British Columbia and Alberta have too.
Toronto’s government board looks at how it can report cases when schools resume personal learning, saying transparency with families is important.
Going forward, it is unclear what will happen with case reporting. Dr. Lawrence Loh, the medical officer in the Peel region, believes the province will issue up-to-date case and contact management guidelines specific to school and child care environments.
Sources have told Star given the province’s restrictions on lab-based tests and how case counts in the province do not provide a complete picture of what’s going on, school case reporting is also an issue as people have been advised to stay home if they are. symptomatic and without a test.
The Toronto Government Board, which prepares for staff absenteeism due to illness or isolation, is recruiting at all levels, but especially for support and teaching staff. It wants to reduce the waiting time before new hires start – for example, police checks typically take six to eight weeks. It has also created a supply pool of support staff to be sent to the schools.
The province has temporarily increased the number of days, retired teachers, principals and vice-principals can be re-employed from 50 to 95.
“We hope it will give us some help, but it may not be the panacea that some may think,” Audley Salmon, chief executive officer of staff services, said at a committee meeting this week.