School Board Adjusts to the New Face of the Pandemic

School begins on Wednesday, but unlike the original plan just a week ago, students across Ontario are going back to school at home, and on their computers. On Tuesday night, the Program Committee of the Upper Grand District School Board had to deviate slightly from their previously released agenda to deal with the numerous changes to education created by the Ontario government over the holiday break.

“I just want to take a moment and acknowledge the fact that we are once again here, following a school break our students and staff have been asked to shift again to remote learning,” said director of education Peter Sovran. “It has been extraordinarily disruptive for students, for families, for staff, and everyone involved. I want to acknowledge and give thanks to our students for persevering, our families who have continued to be supportive and to all of our amazing staff for being ready to shift and adapt.”

Sovran explained to the committee that all teachers in the Upper Grand system would be focused on re-engaging with students on Wednesday morning, and also making sure that all students had the technology they needed to make it through the next few weeks of remote instruction. Sovran added that they will aiming to get everything in place to return to in-person learning on January 17 unless otherwise instructed by the Government of Ontario.

On ventilation in schools, Sovran said that there are a number of projects on the go to install more HEPA filters, and that workers will use the next couple of weeks of empty schools to make adjustments to the filters already installed. “I’m also very pleased to say that proactively in December, we placed an order to procure and have available for us additional standalone HEPA units for all of our secondary school and continuing education learning spaces,” he said. “This brings our total in UGDSB to nearly 2,200 standalone HEPA units.”

The board was also proactive in putting in orders for non-fit N95 masks for staff, and those new masks will be delivered later this week. Three-ply reusable masks for students have also been order, but there’s no delivery date for them yet. Students will get two masks each from the allotment ordered by the Province, and the board is trying to secure their own order of masks so that students can have access to an additional two masks.

Sovran said that the new importance of masking is also prompting his staff to review the mask exemption procedure. Executive Superintendent of Education Brent McDonald said that it was a bit too early to know exactly what those changes might look like, but he suggested that they might be looking at requiring a medical sign-off for exemption requests.

“We’d be also looking at requiring families to resubmit applications for exemptions as well, and to review each of them so that we make sure that students who are exempt are exempt for proper reasons that fit the criteria that may be changing going forward,” McDonald said.

In terms of tracking cases in schools, Sovran noted that the new limitations on testing will make it hard to get exact numbers, which is why the school board will be implementing something called a “case count proxy pilot”,  where the board will look at the list of absences and exclude any absence that might be for a non-COVID related reason.

“While this is not, by any means, meant to replace a positive COVID-19 case count, what it does do is provide a bit of a proxy in terms of the number of absences,” Sovran said. “The reason we say that is because we have heard from our public health officials very clearly that the Omicron variant is omnipresent within our communities, and if someone is symptomatic, they should assume that they have the Omicron variant of COVID-19.”

Sovran was asked about the board implementing its own rapid testing strategy by procuring tests and giving them out to all students and staff, but the math isn’t in the board’s favour. Taking into account 35,000 students, 6,000 staff, two tests a week and a cost of $9 per test, then it would cost about $700,000 per week for the board to commit to their own independent testing program.

“It’s a very significant amount that would take away from from other supports that we’re providing,” Sovran said.

The board will also be focusing on the fundamentals when school returns to in-person learning, albeit with a bit more urgency. That means making sure that students and their families are doing self-screenings every day, and for kids that have to take the bus, that means sticking to their assigned seating and assuring that those buses are thoroughly cleaned once the students depart.  The board is also preparing a temporary remote learning opportunity in case students don’t feel safe coming back to school right away, but still plan on coming back to in-person learning at some point. There will be more details about that next week.

Before the committee moved on to other business, Board Chair Linda Busuttil put forward a motion to send a letter to the Provincial government asking them to add COVID-19 as a designated disease under the Immunization of School Pupils Act, to develop an asymptomatic symptom screening process, and to ask them for $4 million to cover the cost of more rapid antigen tests.

“We now have a price tag for the letter to say to the government that this is what we believe is an enhancement to the Safety Return to School plan for the Upper Grand District School Board, and that we want their support for that procurement,” Busutill explained.

Members of the committee offered no objections to Busutill drafting the letter.

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