Ontario’s chief medical of health was frank as he addressed the province’s parents, who for weeks have been on a back-to-school roller-coaster — first preparing to send their kids to class amid a COVID-19 surge, then shifting to online learning as schools shuttered, and now readying for a return to in-person learning.
“I understand that sending your children back to school on Monday will be worrying for many,” Dr. Kieran Moore told a news conference alongside Minister of Education Stephen Lecce, held in advance of schools reopening province-wide Jan. 17.
Ontario’s parents are worried, yes — and confused, exhausted and bogged down in ever-shifting rules and updates, judging by the more than 130 questions they sent in to the Star this week (many of which we’re still trying to answer. Stay tuned.)
In Wednesday’s press conference, Lecce provided the latest on the province’s plan to do “everything humanly possible to protect our schools.” That includes providing rapid antigen tests to students and staff in schools and child-care settings, and distributing masks to school boards — N95 respirator masks for staff, three-ply masks for students.
Some burning questions were addressed by Lecce and Moore, while the Star chased down the latest available information for others. Below, a compilation of questions from parents and guardians, answered.
I am concerned about immunity for students seven months removed from a second vaccine dose, unmasked lunches, poor filtration, no testing and cohorts abandoned when numbers permit. Is there any movement on approving boosters for children over 12?
The Ministry of Health says Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines have so far only been authorized for use by Health Canada as a booster dose after completion of the primary series in individuals over 18. “We will continue to review the evidence and take action as needed to further protect our children and schools,” the ministry told the Star in an emailed response.
Will COVID-19 vaccines be mandated?
No. Dr. Kieran Moore, the province’s chief medical officer of health, said in Wednesday’s press conference that because the vaccine is “new,” the government wants “greater experience with it before we ever mandate it.” (More than 9.5 billion doses of the vaccine have been administered globally and serious side effects are rare). Some schools will offer vaccine clinics, but parental consent will be required.
What exactly has been implemented in schools over the past two weeks that has made them safer for students?
Personal protective equipment (PPE) will be provided to students and staff at Ontario’s schools. N95 masks, largely considered the best option to protect against COVID-19, are being distributed to staff. Students will receive a three-ply mask, three million of which have shipped to Ontario’s schools already, Education Minister Stephen Lecce said.
Two rapid antigen tests will be distributed to each student to allow parents to monitor for possible cases. The rapid tests will replace a previous program which saw take-home PCR tests provided to symptomatic staff and students.
Meanwhile, the minister said 3,000 additional HEPA units have been provided to schools, building on the 70,000 HEPA systems already in schools. Similarly, upgrades were made to ventilation in schools, while schools that do not have mechanical ventilation were given HEPA filters, Lecce said.
Stricter screening protocols will be implemented at school drop-off.
How will the school boards be collecting information on positive cases in classes? How many cases will trigger a class or school closure?
Principals will monitor absences and notify public health units when they reach 30 per cent, which Moore believes will represent a rise in community spread. This will prompt public health to notify families about the increased absences. However, the absences tracked will not be COVID-specific and will include students that are absent for any reason. Public health units will communicate guidance depending on the situation locally.
When asked about schools asking parents to volunteer to be emergency fill-ins in schools in the case of an emergency staff shortage, Lecce said that an “emergency supply list of staff” has always existed in school boards across the province, and sometimes these lists include family members.
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How do I switch to home-schooling if online learning isn’t available?
Parents hoping to switch to home-schooling will need to double-check for specific requirements in their region before proceeding.
In general, parents should notify their school board of their intent to home-school and provide the student’s name, date of birth and relevant contact information, such as a home address or phone number. The Toronto District School Board (TDSB), for example, requires the letter be submitted to the superintendent in your area.
How did the province settle on the 30 per cent absences figure as the threshold for reporting to families about cases?
The province announced that families will now only be notified when absences at their schools hit 30 per cent — a significant departure from prior waves, when parents were notified of a single case in their child’s classroom.
Asked on Wednesday how they settled on that number, Moore said that absentee percentage has for years been a threshold for other viruses, indicating “increased activity in the community” that should be communicated to families.
“Based on our previous experience, that number has worked well for us,” Moore said.
A community clinic run by Michael Garron Hospital hands out PCR tests that people can bring them for testing. Kids are also able to have their mouths and cheeks swabbed instead. It was so helpful for me as I have a special-needs child who gets very anxious during COVID testing. If PCRs are the most accurate mode of testing, why aren’t those more available to students/schools?
PCR tests are being reserved for high-risk settings, like long-term care and hospitals, the government says. That said, some in-school PCR tests distributed when the Delta variant was dominant are still available for students who become symptomatic while at school but the province is now “transitioning” to the use of rapid antigen tests for students in primary and elementary settings. Rapid tests will be made available in high schools on an “as needed” basis. Dr. Moore also said the rapid antigen tests hold more value now.
“Omicron is more transmissible but less virulent as a disease,” said Moore. “And we’ve modified our protocols as a result. The (parent) empowerment capacity is having the (rapid) tests in your home. If your child screens to have symptoms compatible with COVID-19, you have rapid antigen tests, you have an answer very quickly that empowers the parent to make the decision to keep their child home.”
I have three sons, all double vaccinated, but my daughter is only four. How do I protect her? Will keeping her home serve any purpose if the boys go to school?
This scenario was not directly addressed at Wednesday’s provincial press conference, however, the province assured that more rapid antigen tests are coming. While they don’t offer protection, results provide some answers amid so many questions.
What is the difference in the risk of transmission in an environment with 25-plus elementary students eating lunch in a classroom versus people eating in restaurants and bars, the latter being closed for in-person dining due the risk of catching and spreading the Omicron variant?
Again, not directly addressed at the Wednesday press conference, but the province has emphasized student mental health and in-person learning as priorities.
“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,” said Moore.
Jenna Moon is a breaking news reporter for the Star and is based in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @_jennamoon
Jim Rankin is a Star reporter based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @Jleerankin
Wendy Gillis is a Toronto-based reporter covering crime and policing for the Star. Reach her by email at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter: @wendygillis
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