Schools boosting safety protocols for in-person learning, critics calling for more
There is widespread agreement that it's important to get kids back to in-person learning, but no consensus on what it will take to do so.
With nearly 100,000 Ontario students in southern Ontario back in school buildings this week, Education Minister Stephen Lecce says the province is adding “stricter, tougher” measures to protect against COVID-19.
That includes a requirement that high school students and all staff prove they have completed a COVID-19 symptom checklist every day; a plan to expand asymptomatic testing; and an extension of the mandatory mask requirement to include children in Grades 1 to 3.
An announcement is expected this week on more safe-school funding from the federal government that Lecce said will help improve school ventilation, buy more laptops and PPE and add custodians and other staff.
The government’s critics — including education unions, some epidemiologists and physicians, Opposition critics at Queen’s Park and some parents — say much more is needed.
They are calling for more COVID-19 testing and improvements to tracing of close contacts, better school ventilation, smaller classes to ensure physical distancing and paid leave to make it possible for people to stay home when they or their kids need to self-isolate.
There is widespread agreement that it’s important to get kids back to in-person learning, but no consensus on what it will take to do so relatively safely.
Most Ontario students have been learning remotely at home since the Christmas break ended Jan. 4.
Only schools in northern Ontario and seven predominately rural regions in the south, including Renfrew and Leeds, Grenville and Lanark, have reopened.
The government has not said when in-person classes will resume elsewhere. Lecce says he relies on advice from Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams.
Ottawa Medical Officer of Health Dr. Vera Etches supports opening Ottawa schools now, saying COVID-19 indicators are declining in the city and school is vital.
At a briefing Tuesday, Etches said she hopes to have more information from the province this week about when schools in Ottawa might open.
Here is a summary of changes the province has made:
Experts agree the most effective way to reduce COVID-19 in schools is to lower transmission in the community. Screening people so they don’t bring the virus into schools is also key.
Since last fall the province has required students and staff to complete a daily checklist of symptoms and to stay home if they fail the test.
Lecce says the COVID-19 screening protocol is being “enhanced.”
What’s changed? Principals or their designates will have to verify that all school staff and high school students have completed and passed the symptom checklist every day.
The change began for staff this week and for high school students it starts Feb. 10.
Associations representing Ontario school principals are upset about the idea, saying it would add an administrative burden and might even cause safety concerns if high school students congregate outside to show their paper or phone proof.
It’s not clear how the verification is supposed to be done, including whether teachers in classrooms would be allowed to do it, said Blaine MacDougall, president of the Catholic Principals’ Council of Ontario.
At the Renfrew Country District School Board, where schools reopened Monday, staff fill out an electronic form confirming they have taken the self-screening test and submit it before work, said spokesperson Jonathan Laderoute.
He said it appears students could be asked verbally for confirmation once they are in class. “Right now we understand that the requirement to validate screening could involve a simple verbal confirmation and that no ‘proof’ was required.”
Others suggest that what’s needed is to tighten the screening itself.
The province should revert to the stricter rules in place when schools opened, said Susan Gardner, president of the union representing elementary teachers at the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board.
Any student or staff with one COVID-19 symptom should be required to stay home and self-isolate pending a COVID-19 test, along with any asymptomatic siblings, she said.
The province relaxed the self-screening on Oct. 1 to allow children with one “minor” symptom, such as a sniffly nose, to stay home for a day then go back to school if they were improving.
Until then, frustrated parents in Ottawa endured hours-long lineups at testing centres and waited days or even a week or longer for results. Testing capacity has been improved, but it’s unclear whether it’s sufficient to handle the flood of extra testing that would accompany stricter screening protocols.
Orders can also be made by local health units. Toronto and Peel, where infections are skyrocketing, returned to one-symptom screening rules in December.
Ottawa Public Health says it’s monitoring the issue of symptom screening but notes that Toronto and Peel made changes when COVID-19 cases in the community were higher than in Ottawa and rising.
“Ottawa’s case counts have been showing a downward trend in recent weeks,” said OPH in a statement. “While still elevated, Ottawa’s current weekly case counts are now lower than the peak observed in early October. The most important factor influencing the risk of importing COVID-19 into schools is the rate of community transmission.”
A group of experts led by the Hospital for SickKids in Toronto, in a recent update to their school opening report, suggested screening should depend on the region. In areas with “moderate to high” community transmission of COVID-19, the threshold for exclusion from school should be lower, such as screening for a single symptom, and “consideration given” to requiring siblings of students with symptoms to stay home too pending test results, said the report.
COVID-19 symptoms in children vary widely, with more than half reporting fever and cough, 10 to 20 per cent reporting nasal congestion or a runny nose, fatigue or sore throat and fewer than 10 per cent reporting gastrointestinal symptoms or a headache, said the report.
Gardner and other critics say changes should be made in conjunction with paid leave to make it possible for working parents to care for children in self-isolation or to stay home themselves.
At Tuesday’s briefing, Etches acknowledged that it’s difficult for some people to self-isolate as required, saying they face “impossible choices” such as not being able to buy food or pay the rent.
With community spread of COVID-19 high in many regions and the emergence of variants that are more contagious, robust testing and contact tracing is “imperative” to safely reopen schools, according to the SickKids report.
Easy access to non-invasive testing is essential, said the report.
However, when it comes to testing of asymptomatic students, the report is more nuanced.
The report says that one-time, large-scale testing is not recommended, and semi-regular testing, such as twice weekly, is neither recommended nor feasible with the testing options now available.
However, targeted surveillance testing “may be reasonable” in areas where infection rates are higher or at schools with outbreaks, said the report.
Last July, Lecce said that Ontario Public Health would conduct surveillance testing on asymptomatic high school students when schools reopened. That never happened.
But a pilot project of asymptomatic testing was conducted at schools in late November and December in Toronto, York, Peel and Ottawa. About 9,000 asymptomatic students, staff and their family members were tested.
Asymptomatic testing will be expanded as schools reopen, Lecce has promised. In a video posted on social media, Lecce said testing capacity would be “ramped up dramatically.”
Lecce’s office did not provide an answer to a query about when and where asymptomatic testing would begin or whether there was a target for the number of tests to be conducted.
Another key demand from critics is an improvement to ventilation at schools. The province says it has provided some funds, and more money is on the way when the federal government releases $380 million, which represents the second half of a safe-schools grant.
The money will be released before the end of January, said a spokesperson for the federal minister for intergovernmental affairs.
Critics also continue to call for smaller classes to allow for more physical distancing.
Lecce notes that about 3,000 more teachers have been hired this year though a combination of COVID-19 grants and school board reserves, which has allowed some class sizes to be lowered, and many boards report they are having trouble hiring occasional teachers.
The government has extended the requirement to wear a cloth mask while indoors at school and on buses to students in Grades 1-3. Students must also wear a mask if they are outdoors and can’t physically distance.
Some school districts had already mandated masks for younger children, although not in Ottawa.