School boards in Toronto, including the country’s largest, are scrambling to finalize arrangements for Monday’s return to in-person learning, and say they’re still figuring out how to contact parents about positive COVID-19 cases in the classroom.
On Wednesday, Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce revealed some additional specifics about what parents should expect when their children return to school for the first time after the winter break next week.
He confirmed that schools will not be required to notify parents directly about COVID-19 cases in the classroom but would alert parents when about 30 per cent of the students and staff in a school are absent on a given day. The province also said that starting Jan. 24, parents will be able to access data on the absentee rate in their child’s school.
“We want to make sure we are being as transparent as possible so we are looking aside from the 30 per cent notification, how can we let families know what’s going on in classrooms and schools. So we are in the middle of finalizing our own plans,” Toronto District School Board (TDSB) spokesperson Ryan Bird told CP24 on Thursday morning.
“PCR testing is essentially being phased out on a school level in replacement of rapid antigen tests. What’s the availability of those on a frequent basis? So we want to make sure we can provide that accurate information when we hear about confirmed cases. But then what do we do when we hear about symptomatic cases. How do we make sure we are being open but not telling everyone about a runny nose in a classroom. It is a little bit more complex than it would appear.”
The province has promised to give each student in Ontario schools two rapid antigen tests upon their return to in-person learning and more tests will be provided on an “as-needed” basis when the province secures additional supply. PCR testing is not available to all students and will be limited to those experiencing significant symptoms while in class. The remaining supply of about 200,000 PCR self-collection kits at schools will not be replenished when they run out, the province’s chief medical officer of health confirmed Wednesday.
Bird said the board is also bracing for high rates of absenteeism due to staff experiencing symptoms or being close contacts of positive cases.
“When it comes overall to staffing shortages, we are looking at strategies right now to determine exactly how we do that,” he said.
“It is hard to determine when you have nearly 600 sites how these shortages will impact the system on a school-level. It may be necessary for operational reasons to close a class, to close a school. We really don’t know yet until we are in it quite frankly.”
Operational direction from the Ministry of Education stated schools can institute virtual learning days or collapse class cohorts together in situations where large numbers of staff are absent, but they will first be required to access pools of retired education staff and teacher trainees to fill gaps.
Brendan Browne, the director of education for the Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB), also said schools within the TCDSB are planning to go “above and beyond” what the province requires in terms of communicating positive cases to parents.
“We do recognize that parents really want to know so what we are taking a look at is when there is a confirmed case that’s reported to the principal that we will let that cohort know so that classroom knows as a courtesy to try to make sure parents are aware,” he told CP24.
He said he feels confident that teachers have a sufficient supply of N95 masks and each school will have HEPA filters or upgraded ventilation systems in every occupied classroom.
Trustees with the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board sent an open letter to Lecce this week outlining their “grave concern, disappointment, and frustration” with the changes to provincial protocols, particularly the decision to discontinue COVID-19 reporting and the dismissal of students and staff when a positive case has been identified.
“This is a concern that all trustees are hearing daily from our parents/guardians who are angry, frustrated, and more apprehensive than ever to send their children to school,” the letter read.
They slammed the province over a lack of transparency and consultation with school boards, for failing to provide equitable access to test kits and N95 masks for students, and for neglecting to provide adequate funding for ventilation and air quality improvements.
The province is providing millions of N95 masks to education and child-care staff but not to students. The ministry has said it will send four million “high quality three-ply masks” to students attending in-person learning across Ontario. In addition to the 70,000 HEPA filter units previously sent out to schools, the province has noted that it is redeploying 3,000 additional standalone units to schools ahead of Monday’s return.
“Reverting to the previous case and contact management system, including transparent reporting of known positive COVID-19 cases in schools and sharing this information in accordance with applicable privacy laws with parents/guardians as per the previous established protocol, would go a long way toward regaining the trust of our community,” the letter from the trustees read.
“We implore the province, as a first step, to provide access to medical grade masks or N95 masks for all students and education staff as noted above, provide an adequate number of test kits for each student and education staff member to test at home for COVID-19, as well as reconstitute the reporting and management system that was in place and to consult with stakeholders on these and other important matters affecting the health and safety of our students and staff as indicated, moving forward.”
Source_ the Canadian press