WELLINGTON COUNTY – School bells rang this week, summoning children back to classrooms following a two-week delay with around two million students stuck at home learning virtually.
Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health Medical (WDGPH) Officer of Health Dr. Nicola Mercer said “the benefits of reopening in-person learning ultimately outweigh the short-term risks” in an open Jan. 14 letter addressed to the community.
In the five days leading up to the in-class return, the province planned on distributing 3,000 standalone HEPA filter units, 10 million (non-fitted) N95 masks, four million three-ply masks and nearly four million rapid antigen tests to Ontario school boards.
Omicron threatens keeping classrooms open
Despite the rush of preventative supplies, provincial officials are anticipating that school staffing challenges, due to Omicron’s spread, could lead to school closures.
To help keep schools open, the Ministry of Education is permitting retired educators to return to classrooms for up to 95 days and is issuing temporary teaching certificates (around 3,400 in 2021) to teacher candidates and those still in school.
Officials from both local school boards confirmed to the Advertiser that efforts to hire retirees and student teachers with temporary qualifications are ongoing.
Schools can also, as a last resort, combine classes and move students around to different classes during staffing shortages, but must remain within legislated caps on class sizes.
Contact tracing and case management for schools has been discontinued by the province and is being replaced by the reporting and monitoring of levels of absenteeism among staff and students.
School principals will be required to report absenteeism to local public health units and if levels reach 30 per cent, public health and education officials are expected to communicate with families about reasons why absenteeism has increased.
Statistics won’t specify why someone is absent from the classroom – whether because of a COVID-19 infection or an unrelated reason – but the province’s top doctor, Kieran Moore, said during a Jan. 12 announcement about the return to in-person learning, alongside education minister Stephen Lecce, that the province has “plenty of experience using absenteeism data” for other viral respiratory seasons, and an increase in absences would likely correlate to an increase in the spread of the virus.
Reaching the 30% threshold will not prompt school closures, provincial health officials said.
Local boards face staffing challenges
The Upper Grand District School Board (UGDSB) hasn’t yet received provincial protocols on reporting, but communications manager Heather Loney said in an email the board is developing an “absence reporting proxy pilot” scheduled to begin this week.
“This will involve the board reporting the rate of school absences on a daily basis and making this information available on the board website,” Loney said.
Absenteeism monitoring will occur twice per day – prior to the start of school and at the end of each day.
In the week leading up to the return to classrooms, out of 454 expected on-site staff at schools, COVID-related absences within the board totaled: 40 on Monday, 43 on Tuesday, 42 on Wednesday and 34 on Thursday, and 54 on Friday, according to data provided by Loney.
The board is anticipating “higher than normal absenteeism,” she said, adding structures are in place to respond to staffing challenges, including the “redeployment of centrally assigned staff to schools.”
The Wellington Catholic District School Board (WCDSB) is taking a similar approach, including “the reassignment of staff as needed,” according to communications officer Ali Wilson.
Last week, of the 840 total staff in the WCDSB, there were seven staff absent due to COVID-19 on Monday, six on Tuesday, six on Wednesday, five on Thursday, and five on Friday.
Wilson said absences for education staff “have not been significant this week” but the board anticipates the current situation will change.
Province supplying millions of rapid tests
Moore said families can expect more sensitive, “enhanced” daily screening requirements.
To further help in screening for the virus, the province will provide enough rapid antigen tests to school boards across the province for every school staff member and elementary student (along with child care settings) to receive two tests the week of Jan. 17.
High school students will have access to rapid tests on an as-needed basis, Lecce said, explaining elementary students would receive tests first with high school students able to access a test only if symptomatic, until the province’s stockpiles are replenished by the federal government.
Another 1.2 million tests are expected to reach school boards this week.Neither Lecce nor Moore said how often rapid tests would be provided.Staff and students who become symptomatic while at school will also be provided with take-home PCR tests, Moore said.
According to the chief medical officer of health, around 200,000 PCR tests have already been provided to schools. WCDSB has around 700 PCR tests to provide and UGDSB had around 4,200 PCR tests prior to the winter break.
The province has also asked local public health units to identify school settings where dedicated clinics could be established offering vaccinations to the five-to-11 age group with parental consent as a central focus.
WDGPH officials are reaching out to local school boards to try and orchestrate a “customized approach for each school to achieve increased vaccination rates among children” spokesperson Danny Williamson stated in an email.
NDP Official Opposition education critic Marit Stiles told the Advertiser she’s sceptical of classrooms remaining open with the province having to rely on retired and student teachers to fill potential staffing shortages wrought by the spread of Omicron.
Stiles also said providing “only two” rapid tests is “not a long-term solution” and voiced concern about the ability of the Progressive Conservatives to deliver on promises of ongoing supply.
Upper Grand Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario vice president and chief negotiator Jennifer Hesch said the union is happy with the province “finally” taking action but said “it shouldn’t have gotten to this level.”
Hesch echoed long-standing union concerns calling for smaller classes and said although teachers were looking forward to the in-person return, they’re “nervous about health risks” – especially with a largely unvaccinated school population.Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation District 18 representative Danell Smith did not respond to multiple requests for comment from the Advertiser.
David Del Duca, Wellington representative for the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association, criticised the province’s methods of communicating with parents and educators – through leaks to the press and late night social media posts followed by announcements days later – “disrespectful.”
The union rep said the provincial announcement didn’t contain much new information – unions and boards were already aware of the previously announced shipments of filters and masks.As for rapid tests, Del Duca said they’re “reactionary” and not a solution for a lack of data to show just how prevalent COVID-19 is in school settings.
Even with an abundance of rapid tests, positive cases aren’t reported, skewing actual case numbers and leaving education stakeholders uninformed, Del Duca said.
“I really feel like parents, educators, students, everyone in the whole education community, deserve to know how safe schools are,” he said.
“With suspended testing and contact tracing, that becomes impossible.”