Monday, January 24, 2022

Be prepared for sudden class or school closures, Ottawa board tells parents

A letter from the Ottawa-Carlton District School Board said parents should have contingency plans in place for children and monitor their email.

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Ottawa’s largest school board has warned parents that staff absenteeism could result in the closure of classes or schools once schools reopen on Monday.

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A letter sent to parents Friday by the Ottawa-Carlton District School Board said the board would try to let parents know at least one night before any closures.

“We will do everything possible to keep classrooms and schools open, but, if we cannot operate safely, a classroom or school may have to switch to distance learning unless we have the proper coverage. Can’t arrange.”

The letter states that parents should have contingency plans in place for children and monitor their emails.

Schools across the province are prepared for what could be high levels of absenteeism among students and staff as in-person classes resume when COVID-19 rates in the community are high.

The chairman of the Ottawa-Carlton board has also written to Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lessey to express concerns about the province’s plans to reopen schools.

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First among those concerns, Lynn Scott wrote, is the need to continue tracking and reporting confirmed and suspected COVID-19 cases in schools.

The government has suspended the reporting of COVID-19 cases in schools and families will no longer be reporting cases among classmates or peers such as fellow bus-riders.

It is part of sweeping changes to Ontario’s testing and contact-tracing system after it was overwhelmed by a surge of Omicron variant cases.

Laboratory-based PCR testing, which forms the basis of school reporting and tracking systems for COVID-19, has been restricted to people at high risk and in settings such as hospitals and long-term care homes. Instead school staff and students are being offered rapid antigen tests that can be done at home.

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The provincial education ministry says it now plans to assess the spread of COVID-19 in schools based on how many students and staff are absent.

If absenteeism increases by more than 30 percent above normal levels, the principal must notify local public health officials. According to a ministry memorandum to school boards, the province will publish attendance figures online from January 24.

Scott’s letter said absenteeism was “an accurate and insufficient proxy for understanding the prevalence of COVID-19 in schools.”

The letter dated January 14, written at the request of all the trustees, states that children remain absent from school due to various reasons.

Board Chairman Lynn Scott to Education Minister Stephen Lessey
Board chairman Lynn Scott to Education Minister Stephen Lessey says absenteeism is “an accurate and insufficient proxy for understanding the prevalence of COVID-19 in schools.” Photo by Jackie Miller ,postmedia

The letter said families should not rely on “uninformed absence reports or community rumours” to determine whether their child was exposed to COVID-19 at school, or the overall risk of the virus at school for their family. Risk exceeds tolerance.

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The letter said that students and staff should have access to PCR testing so that COVID-19 cases can be tracked and reported if they have symptoms or are at high-risk exposure at school.

Rapid antigen tests are also needed to support the “test for return” strategy for students and staff who are sick with COVID-19 or exposed to the virus, the letter said.

The province has said that two rapid antigen tests will be distributed to each student and staff member starting next week. More tests are expected to be available later as supplies come in from the federal government.

Scott’s letter also urged the province to provide medical and non-fit-tested N95 masks to students.

Medical masks have been provided to employees since last year and the province plans to provide them with N95 masks again next week.

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For students, the province has said that three-layer cloth masks will be distributed to any students who want.

Scott’s letter also requested substantial long-term funding to upgrade the school ventilation system.

The province said that ventilation systems in all schools have been improved, such as upgrading to high-grade filters and recalibrating systems to increase the flow of fresh air.

Portable HEPA air filters have also been provided for schools that lack mechanical ventilation systems and for all kindergarten classrooms. Critics have called for HEPA filters for every class.

Ontario’s two million elementary and secondary students were temporarily moved to online learning at home after the Christmas break.

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The Ministry of Education has instructed school board administrators to do everything possible to keep schools open.

To help address staff shortage and absenteeism, the government will allow first-year teachers of education students to fill up. Second year students are in classes on provisional teaching certificates from last year. In addition, the number of working days in classrooms for retired teachers during this school year has been increased from 50 to 95.

The ministry has said that schools can introduce rotating remote learning days or allow merging of students from different classes, if needed, to keep schools open.

However, Ottawa-Carlton board staff told trustees at a meeting this week that administrators would probably stop classes before getting students from different classes together because it would violate cohabitation.

Cohorting – placing students in the same class as theirs – has been an important measure to reduce the spread of the virus at school.

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