WELLINGTON COUNTY – Following the provincial government’s decision to suspend COVID-19 case reporting in schools and child care settings, schools across the province have been left in the dark while they await further guidance from the province.
A Dec. 30 memo from the Ministry of Education announced the province would be suspending the reporting of positive cases in schools given the rapid spread of the latest COVID-19 variant.
“In light of the Omicron variant of concern and how quickly it is spreading, the COVID-19 case, contact and outbreak management approach is being updated across all sectors,” the memo reads.
“Given recent changes to case and contact management by the Ministry of Health and (Ontario Chief Medical Officer of Health), the ministry will suspend reporting of COVID-19 cases.”
In an interview on CBC Radio’s Metro Morning on Dec. 31, chief medical officer of health Dr. Kieran Moore said absences in schools and other sectors will be the main indicator for the spread.
“Given that Omicron is so rapidly spreading, we’re basically reporting on what proportion of students are absent at any given time to allow public health to concentrate on those high-risk settings,” Moore said.
In an email statement to the Advertiser, Upper Grand District School Board (UGDSB) spokesperson Heather Loney said further information from the province would be shared shortly with school boards on expectations for reporting absences and school closures due to COVID-19.
“The role of public health is changing,” Loney said. “COVID-19 testing, and outbreak management is changing to focus provincial resources on the highest-risk settings.
“Staff and student contact tracing in schools will no longer be a part of the process and COVID-19 cases will not routinely be reported to schools,” she added.
“Schools and the school board will not be informed by public health when there is a positive case.”
The COVID-19 reporting page on the board’s website has been updated as of Dec. 31, noting public health will no longer be dismissing class cohorts following an exposure in the school setting, which marks “a significant shift in how COVID-19 cases have been previously managed.”
“We recognize the importance of continuing to inform our communities about absences,” Loney acknowledged.
“The UGDSB is working on developing an interim process for reporting absences and will communicate more on this when it is finalized.”
As with Upper Grand, Wellington Catholic District School Board (WCDSB) director of education Mike Glazier said in email statement the board is awaiting further guidance from the province on how COVID-19 case management in schools will be addressed.
He noted updated guidance documents are expected shortly and the board will conduct further review on any potential challenges.
“With the recent announcements on the move to remote learning, our focus has turned to this transition,” he wrote.
“We are awaiting further guidance from the province on the management of reporting absences and school closures, but internally are committed to informing our stakeholders and Wellington Catholic community members who may be affected.”
Asked how the board will proceed with reporting and notification of cases moving forward, WCDSB officials say it will likely rely on staff and students to report illnesses. Reporting of cases will then be provided to school community members who are affected.
In terms of how the board will determine whether a classroom/cohort is required to close, Glazier said “the board will review available data as well as administrative capacity to properly provide a safe and productive learning environment for our students.”
While reporting of COVID-19 cases in schools is suspended, the memo from the Ministry of Health encourages submission of serious occurrences of confirmed cases of COVID-19 from schools and child care facilities.
Elementary and secondary students and staff who are symptomatic are eligible for PCR tests if they’ve received a self-collection kit through their school.
In the absence of the government’s decision to halt reporting in schools, Protect Our Schools, a publicly sourced database, has been developed by Ontario parents and education worker groups to ensure members of the school community have access to “critical health information.”
The website acts as an “Ontario school COVID case tracker” to report cases in schools, site developer Darren Puscas tweeted on Jan. 2 following the government’s decision.
“Our goal is to gather the information we need to hold the government accountable for keeping Ontario schools safe,” the site description states.
Another reporting tool has also been created by former York Catholic District School Board educator Ryan Imgrund.
The site, titled Imgrund COVID-19 Dashboard, offers a portal for parents and students to report COVID-19 symptoms.
School closures extended
On Dec. 30, the province originally announced a two-day delay in the return of schools in response to the increase in cases.
Four days later, in a Jan. 3 address to the province, Premier Doug Ford announced the return to in-person learning would be delayed for at least two weeks – to Jan. 17 at the earliest.
“I know this isn’t the news anyone wants to hear, but with the new variant, the ground is shifting every single day,” Ford stated.
“The level of absenteeism in other sectors tells us with absolute certainty that operating schools, ensuring teachers are on the job and not home sick, will be a challenge we cannot overcome in the short term.”