School board to ask province to add COVID-19 to immunization act

UGDSB letter also asks province to develop screening process, procure rapid antigen tests for staff and students

GUELPH – The Upper Grand District School Board (UGDSB) will be sending a letter to the province requesting several actions to ensure a safer return to in-person learning.

During a Jan. 4 program committee meeting, UGDSB chair Linda Busuttil presented a motion to ask the province to:

  • add COVID-19 to the list of designated diseases under the Immunization of School Pupils Act;
  • provide rapid antigen tests (RAT) to staff and students; and
  • have the Ministry of Health create an asymptomatic screening process with testing criteria for students to stay in or return to class.

The Immunization of School Pupils Act, which applies to all students who attend private or public elementary and secondary schools, requires that all children under the age of 18 registered in school in Ontario must be immunized, or in the process of becoming immunized.

The purpose of the act is to “increase the protection of the health of children against the diseases that are designated diseases” under the act.

“This isn’t something new,” Busuttil explained in an interview with the Advertiser.

“The Ontario Public School Board Association, Toronto Public Health, education unions, individual school boards … have recommended that the province require COVID-19 vaccinations for students who are eligible based on their age.

“We will be writing a letter to add our strong voice to this.”

Busuttil said adding COVID to the list of designated diseases is not something that requires complicated legislation – it can be done by the Ontario Minister of Health.

“So we’re going to be adding our voice to amend that process and have COVID-19 as a designated disease.”

The letter will also ask the government to immediately procure RATs for students and staff to voluntarily conduct regular asymptotic screening at least twice a week.

“What we know is that, before the symptoms come is when the transmissibility happens,” Busuttil explained.

“The problem though is that we have very few rapid antigen tests.”

During the Jan. 4 meeting, Busuttil asked what it would cost if staff and students were to complete testing twice a week.

Based on December’s pricing for RATs, it would cost the board approximately $750,000 a week to do twice-weekly testing for all eligible staff and students across the board, which Busuttil noted is something for which the board has not received funding.

“The price may have increased so if we were to do that up until the beginning of March break that would be between $3 and $4 million dollars,” she explained in the interview.

“We want students to return to school and to stay in school and so having the process of the rapid antigen tests is another safeguard in creating a safe workplace and a safe learning space.

“It is an enhanced screening tool so that if you do come up positive then you would follow those isolation processes.”

The final part of the letter will ask the Ministry of Health and Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health to develop a screening process/program that outlines testing requirements for students wanting to stay in or return to class.

“For us, that’s what’s logical and makes sense; the gap is we don’t have those tests,” Busuttil explained.

“We don’t have rapid antigen tests and so we’re asking the government, not only for us but also to advocate on … all provincial school boards and associations to say this is really important for us to be able to open safely.”

“We’re not an ‘essential’ group. We don’t have access to those PCR tests.”

Pilot program

With the recent provincial announcement to suspend reporting COVID-19 cases in schools, the board is now in the process of developing a pilot program to combat the now prominent information gap in the absence of case management in schools.

“Our staff have been working night and day in pulling together the many threads of this with a real sincere focus on safety and trying to get our staff and our students back in school in a safe learning and working space,” Busuttil said.

“The school board knows that there’s a need to inform our community,” she added.

“Our parents, our caregivers and our communities want to be informed so that they can make the best decisions as well.”

Busuttil noted the pilot program will be school based and there will be no process on reporting to public health.

“We really want students back,” she reiterated. “We want students and staff back.

“We acknowledge that it is good for students to be in that environment, in that learning environment and we also recognize all of the other supports that come to students in that school setting.”