Peel school boards, public health and education ministry discuss moving to online but ministry recommends no closure | The Star
As Ontario records rising numbers of school closings because of COVID-19, Peel Region boards met with the local public health unit and province to discuss moving all of their students to online learning until mid-April.
Dr. Lawrence Loh, Peel’s medical officer of health, confirmed a meeting took place Wednesday “to review the COVID situation in schools. We agreed to reconvene with our school board partners next week to re-evaluate the situation. The Ministry of Education indicated there would be no closure of Peel schools.”
Although there have been a low number of outbreaks so far, Loh noted that — as across the province — the concern is the increase in community and household transmission will correspond to more cases in schools. Public health, he added, “is carefully monitoring the impact of variants of concern and have strengthened measures in response.”
According to the ministry’s website, 31 public schools in Ontario have shut their doors, less than one per cent of all schools. Some 909, almost 19 per cent, are reporting at least one COVID case. Those numbers include individual closures due to outbreaks or operational needs, but not regional closures in a local public health unit — as have occurred in several regions.
In Northern Ontario, 78 schools moved online in the last two weeks, including 40 Rainbow District schools, 20 Thunder Bay Catholic District schools and 18 Sudbury Catholic District schools.
A spokesperson for Education Minister Stephen Lecce said it is up to local health officials to close schools and Peel Public Health “has not recommended the closure of schools across the board.”
While “Peel is in a hotspot region, out of 419 schools, four are closed across the entire Peel Public Health unit, and roughly seven out of 10 schools have no active cases reported at all,” said Caitlin Clark, adding that “schools have been safe places for students.”
She said the ministry “will continue to follow public health advice every step of the way, however our position is clear: Schools should remain open for learning.”
Tiffany Gooch, executive lead for communications with the Peel District School Board, said representatives meet regularly with the province and public health, and the board “always aims to use these opportunities to ensure government and public health authorities are aware of the context and issues being brought forward by Peel board staff and communities.”
Under guidance from public health, the board recently mandated eye protection — face shields or goggles — for all school staff and essential visitors who enter school buildings for 15 minutes or more, a spokesperson said.
Bruce Campbell, manager of communications for the Dufferin-Peel Catholic school board, said education director Marianne Mazzorato “appreciated the opportunity to dialogue about the challenges our schools are experiencing with representatives from the Ministry of Education and Public Health. There was agreement to engage in ongoing discussions.”
And as the province grapples with rising variant counts and a third wave of the pandemic, all schools in the Sudbury and Thunder Bay areas were closed to in-person learning amid an uptick in cases in those communities.
Teachers unions continue to urge the province to convene a consultation table with all major education stakeholders and public health experts, said Liz Stuart, president of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association.
The Toronto District School Board has confirmed a total of 339 active cases among staff and students, with 82 schools affected. One school, George P. Mackie Junior Public School, is closed and offering remote learning due to a “large majority of staff and students self-isolating,” said spokesperson Ryan Bird.
“The TDSB takes its lead from Toronto Public Health, which has not advised schools to take any additional precautions at this point in time,” Bird said.
The Toronto Catholic District School Board is reporting 142 active cases at 68 schools. St. Francis Xavier Catholic School has closed and moved students to virtual learning.
At a briefing Wednesday, Dr. Eileen de Villa, the medical officer of health, said when her team looks into school cases, including those involving variants, and are able to test an entire cohort, they have found that strong infection and prevention control measures have been effective at preventing spread of COVID-19.
But Leslie Wolfe, president of the Toronto local of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, said the province’s asymptomatic testing program has not achieved the levels promised.
“We’re not sure yet that there’s a clear picture about what’s happening in schools, so we can’t know what needs to be done next.”
Dr. Colin Furness, an epidemiologist at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, agreed, calling the testing happening in schools “feeble” and predicts that by April, schools boards will offer online learning only.
“I have two kids in the public system and I’ve seen the harm of closures. It’s appalling,” he said. “But if community prevalence gets high or our health-care system gets threatened that’s what we’re going to need to do.”
Furness explained the voluntary nature of the testing means data is affected by “selection bias,” and that racialized and marginalized families who may not have a high degree of trust in the health-care system are less likely to come forward.
“… If you’re not sampling in a representative fashion, you’re not learning anything,” he said, adding variants are most likely driving outbreaks and cases. “If we’re not testing seriously, we’re standing in a dark room wondering where the furniture is.”
The York Catholic board has now closed down eight schools, with 39 confirmed cases at 23 schools.
Two schools in the York Region District School Board are closed to in-person learning until next week.
An outbreak is defined as when two or more confirmed COVID-19 cases in students, staff or other visitors are connected.
Among private schools, Toronto’s Upper Canada College has shut down for a week after 12 positive cases.
The Durham District School Board is reporting 39 cases with no school closures, with Durham Catholic District school board reporting 20 confirmed and unresolved cases.
With files from Michele Henry
This content was originally published here.