In terms of breaking news, it wasn’t that surprising when it was announced Wednesday afternoon that Ontario’s school kids are going back to in-person learning on Monday. Instead, Minister of Education Stephen Lecce and Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore were pressed for some assurances: Will schools be safe when the children return on Monday, and are school’s prepared if they’re not?
“As you know, elementary and secondary students across Ontario will return to in-person learning on January 17 with strong protections in place fully supported by Ontario’s chief medical officer of health,” said Lecce from Queen’s Park media studio. “For students, this means that they can return to a classroom where they can learn alongside their peers, led by their teachers.”
According to Lecce, to support the return of in-person learning elementary schools and childcare centres will be getting the rapid antigen tests, but there are still significant gaps in who will get tested and when once schools are re-opened.
“Staff and students will receive two tests each from an initial supply of over 3.9 million rapid tests which are being shipped to schools as we speak, ready for January 17,” Lecce explained. “These tests are for use when symptomatic as outlined in the updated school and childcare screener that has been strengthened.
“We will continue to expand access to rapid antigen tests for parents, for students and staff, and these tests will be made available for students in public secondary schools on a need basis,” he added. “More tests will be available in the coming weeks, so we can help limit the spread of COVID in our learning environments.”
The Government of Ontario is also launching school-based vaccine clinics in co-ordination with school boards and public health units. They will also sharing vaccine information resources with parents and guardians, who will be receiving a form in the days to come offering the opportunity to get their kids a vaccine shot at school. Lecce also affirmed that millions of N95 masks will be deliver to schools this week for staff members, and they will also receive millions of three-ply masks for distribution to students.
“We’ve also created a more stricter screening protocol for students and staff before they enter schools to help prevent any cases from getting there in the first place,” Lecce added.
“As we prepare for Monday, we remain focused on the measures that we know work,” Moore said. “While the risk of transmission in school settings can never be eliminated, it can be reduced or mitigated through public health measures including improved vaccination, better masking, ventilation, cohorting and staying home when sick.”
“I understand that sending your children back to school on Monday will be worrying for many, the speed with which information changes, and guidelines and advice are updated can be overwhelming,” Moore added. “But please know that we continue to review the data and the evidence, and we adjust health and safety requirements to ensure our schools remain safe and open for in person learning.”
Members of the media gathered for the press conference were not so sure. Specifically, while Moore and Lecce talked about “empowering” parents, it’s going to be hard for anyone to feel empowered with the lack of testing, the focus on using the limited testing capacity for people who are symptomatic already, and the fact that parents won’t even be notified if there’s an outbreak at school until there’s a 30 per cent rate of absenteeism.
“Omicron is more transmissible but less virulent as a disease, and we’ve modified our protocols,” Moore explained. “As a result, the empowerment capacity is having the tests in your home. If your child screens to have symptoms compatible with COVID-19, you have their rapid antigen tests, you have an answer very quickly that empowers the parent to make the decision to keep their child home.”
Moore added that the community rate of spread is high now, and said that the testing capacity has to be reserved so as to not overwhelm the system. He also noted that a high rate of spread in the general community has a reciprocal rate of spread in schools, and it’s not necessarily the schools themselves that become a source for community spread.
“We have plenty of experience using absenteeism data for normal viral respiratory seasons, and this is based on our experience aggregated over the years of influence reporting in absenteeism associated with other viruses,” Moore said. “We do think given the variation and reasons for absenteeism, a threshold of a rise of 30 per cent most likely would represent increased activity in the community, and would be a point at which want to acknowledge, review what’s going on in the community, and communicate that back to all parents.”
In terms of assurances that schools will have other resources like the masks they were promised, Lecce said that both the N95 masks and the three-ply masks have been shipped out and should be received by schools before Monday’s re-opening date. Lecce also said that they’ve allocated resources for staffing including temporary certification for teacher candidates, the temporary increase of the 50-day re-employment rule to 95 days, and by recruiting 11,000 retired teachers to serve as substitutes.
“I appreciate the very real impact of closure on families on their welfare and their mental health and it’s not lost on me how concerning this is for so many in the province,” Lecce said while explaining how the government used the two-week delay before re-starting in-person learning. “We made a decision out of abundance of caution, as Omicron raged through the country and the world, to take two additional weeks as we observed other health indicators”
In terms of current health indicators, Moore seemed to make it clear that there’s still a danger in sending kids back to school, and it’s a danger that the best face put on by the government can’t hide. “I do want to acknowledge though that the risk over the coming six to eight weeks will be higher, but we’ll get through it. We’ll have a better February, and then a better March,” Moore said.