By Sue Tiffin
On the same day the province reported a single-day record of 3,519 new cases of COVID-19, as well as a record high number of 89 deaths, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health announced elementary students in southern Ontario will not be returning to in-person learning at schools this week as scheduled. Instead, online learning will continue until Jan. 25, aligning with the plan already in place for secondary students. Elementary and secondary students in the northern part of the province will return to school as planned on Jan. 11, but the lockdown period currently in place in the southern parts of the province will be extended to the northern part as well.
The announcement was made by Dr. David Williams, at a 3 p.m. media briefing on Jan. 7.
“This has been a significant week for us,” said Williams, noting the high number records of the day and adding the hope was that the numbers would start decreasing, although he admitted they could also increase to 4,000 per day due to community transmission.
“With the public health trends where they are across the province, our priority remains keeping students, teachers, school staff, and all Ontarians safe,” Premier Doug Ford said in a press release distributed at the same time as the media briefing. “We have to get the numbers down and today’s measures will help us continue to stop the spread of this deadly virus.”
At a photo opportunity earlier that day, Premier Doug Ford told reporters that one in five kids under the age of 13 in Ontario being tested are now positive for COVID-19.
“That’s not mentioning all the other kids that haven’t been tested that might have a runny nose or a cough,” Ford told CBC reporters.
Williams said despite the province-wide shutdown that began on Dec. 26, data has not shown a reduction in positive case numbers as hoped, and that trends in health system capacity and community transmission were “concerning.”
“Targeted testing done among students and staff in December 2020 confirmed that schools are not a significant source of transmission,” reads the Jan. 7 press release from the Ontario government. “However, with students having been at home for several weeks and with reports of concerning behaviour over the holidays, the positivity rate among school-aged children has increased sharply. Most troubling, the positivity rate for kids aged 12-13 years old increased from 5.44 per cent in late November, early December to nearly 20 per cent in early January.”
Prior to the announcement, some public health units – including Windsor-Essex and Guelph – had already planned to keep schools closed regardless of the province’s decision.
Thursday’s announcement is a reversal from the government’s consistent messaging, as early as this week, that schools would stay open. When reporters asked why the plan changed, and with such short notice for parents to plan and prepare for the extended closure, Williams said the case numbers continue to look “very disappointing,” and so more time is needed prior to opening safely. “I have and remain firmly committed to getting students back into class as soon as possible – there is nothing more important,” said Stephen Lecce, minister of education, in Thursday’s press release. “However, the best medical and scientific experts have been clear: while schools have been safe places for kids, the sharp rise in community transmission puts that progress and Ontario families at risk. During this time, students will remain engaged in live teacher-led online learning with access to enhanced mental health and technology supports.”
On Jan. 2, before students enrolled in in-class learning were anticipating beginning a week of virtual learning after the holiday break on Jan. 4, Lecce wrote an open letter to parents, which was shared by the Trillium Lakelands District School Board on Jan. 5.
In that letter, Lecce said it had been a trying year for all Ontarians, but said the province had come together, “most especially inspired by our students, parents and education staff.”
He thanked parents for their dedication, and said, “We believe so strongly that schools are essential to the well-being, mental health and development of a child, and therefore, must be safeguarded at all costs to ensure they can remain open for safe in-class instruction.”
The province-wide shutdown beginning Boxing Day put in place “time-limited public health and workplace safety measures to help ensure our schools remain safe, to stop the spread of COVID-19 transmission in communities, and to save lives,” wrote Lecce last week. “Now, while leading medical experts have been clear that schools are not a source of rising community transmission, we can and will be an important part of the solution to save lives from COVID-19.”
He said the government was following the advice of the chief medical officer of health “by taking proactive and preventative action to protect schools following the holiday break,” with elementary and secondary students across the province learning remotely for the first week of January. Elementary school students, as well as secondary school students in northern public health units, were expected to return to in-person class on Jan. 11, while all other secondary school students would return to class on Jan. 25.
“I want to reassure parents that according to the province’s leading doctors, our schools are safe, with eight out of ten schools in this province having no cases of COVID-19 and based on board reporting, 99.64 per cent of students have not reported a case of COVID-19,” said Lecce. “The province has experienced a safe reopening because we developed a comprehensive, nation-leading plan in partnership with experts in the medical community.”
As of Dec. 22, the last day the Ontario.ca summary of cases in schools page was updated, 7,292 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in school-related student, staff and unidentified individuals had been reported since September’s school reopening. At that time, 976 schools of 4,828 in the province had a reported case, a percentage of just over 20 per cent.
On Jan. 6, the day before the school closure announcement, ETFO – the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario – which represents 83,000 elementary public school teachers, occasional teachers and education professionals across the province, distributed a press release calling on public health units to “reconsider return of all elementary students to in-class learning next week.” The release said ETFO was asking medical officers of health “to prioritize community health and safety over politics.”
“Educators know that in-person learning provides the most effective and equitable learning environment, but unfortunately we are at the height of this pandemic,” said Sam Hammond, ETFO president. “It makes no sense for the government to send students, teachers and education workers back to school while the province is locked for another two to three weeks.
Despite repeated calls for adequate safety measures, the government has refused to implement them in a misguided effort to save money, jeopardizing the health and safety of students, educators and their families.”
The ETFO press release said that it was essential to protect those who are most vulnerable.
“The provincial government’s failure to listen to the advice of medical professionals has resulted in the current crisis we are facing,” said Hammond. “So now, we are asking public health units to use their authority to reconsider the decision to resume in-person learning for all elementary students on Jan. 11, particularly in communities where the rate of community transmission is high, and to implement asymptomatic surveillance testing in schools to ensure that we can better understand the role that schools are playing in the spread of the virus and base future decisions on sound data.”
In that same press release, Dr. David Fisman, professor of epidemiology at the University of Toronto said: “There’s a 10 per cent daily increase in ICU occupancy in Ontario right now. This is not the right time to restart in-person learning. We have to assume that there is a lot of asymptomatic COVID-19 in schools. It is irresponsible to send children and educators back to schools without knowing for sure that it is safe to do so.”
According to ETFO, the organization “continues to demand that the provincial government provide much-needed supports to families, especially during periods when schools are closed to in-person attendance.”
“We also continue our advocacy to ensure that the government acknowledge and address the disproportionate impact the pandemic has had on marginalized communities, in particular racialized and low-income families,” said Hammond. “A safe return cannot be ensured unless urgent and immediate actions are taken to implement a safety plan that reduces class sizes, improves ventilation, and introduces broad in-school asymptomatic testing when in-person attendance resumes.”
Data from licensed child care settings – both child care centres and agencies, which have remained open – has continued to be updated. As of Jan. 7, 1,630 confirmed cases in child care centres and homes have been reported since June 12, with 233 centres currently reporting a confirmed case, a percentage of 4.44 per cent, and 40 centres closed of 5,245 open child care centres. More information is available at ontario.ca/page/covid-19-cases-schools-and-child-care-centres.
On Jan. 7, 89 deaths due to COVID-19 were reported by the province, bringing the official death toll in the province to 4,856. More than 75 per cent of those deaths were long-term care residents. In Haliburton County, 39 local cases have been confirmed since March, three of those being unresolved. On Dec. 18, TLDSB spokesperson Sinead Fegan said the school board currently had no active cases. More information from the school board regarding COVID-19, remote learning supports for parents, and mental health and well-being resources is available at http://www.tldsb.on.ca.