By Sue Tiffin
More than 100,000 students from across Ontario returned to in-person learning on Monday morning [Jan. 25], including those from Haliburton County’s five elementary schools and one high school.
Trillium Lakelands District School Board announced Jan. 20 that Haliburton’s Stuart Baker Elementary School, JD Hodgson Elementary School and Haliburton Highlands Secondary School, Minden’s Archie Stouffer Elementary School, Cardiff Elementary School and Wilberforce Elementary School would all re-open for in-class learning following an extended Christmas closure, brought on by the provincial lockdown enacted on Dec. 26 to stem the spread of the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a statement to media on Sunday [Jan. 24], Ontario’s Minister of Education Stephen Lecce said the provincial
government was implementing various health and safety measures to ensure a smooth transition back to the classroom.
“Ontario has the most comprehensive and highest funded school safety plan in Canada,” Lecce said. “In advance of a return to class, the government will be implementing provincewide targeted asymptomatic testing, more comprehensive screening protocols, and mandatory masking for students in Grades 1 to 3, [indoors] and outdoors where physical distancing cannot be maintained.”
He added, “These new safeguards have been informed by medical leaders and the best available evidence in Canada.”
Lecce pointed toward what he called the “successful” reintegration of students back into the classroom in September as proof that a return to in-class learning can be done in a safe manner. He went on to say that leading medical experts have stated that schools in Ontario “remain safe.”
“School boards [are] reporting approximately 80 per cent of schools, at the end of last year, [did] not report an active case, and 99.6 per cent of students never having reported a case of COVID-19,” Lecce said. “We will continue to review our plan and ensure it provides our schools with the latest safety measures and protocols so our students and staff have maximum protection.”
The local school board confirmed on its website that bus transportation would be available for eligible students in Haliburton County as of Monday. Sinead Fegan, TLDSB communications officer told the Times that the return to in-class learning was being viewed as a positive by many local families.
“For the most part, City of Kawartha Lakes and Haliburton parents/guardians [were] looking forward to the return to school on Jan. 25,” Fegan said.
While many parents expressed relief that their students – struggling with online learning, lack of childcare, working parents and inadequate internet availability – would be returning to in-person school, some questioned why schools were reopening during the province’s second stay-at-home-order, when in most cases households are restricted from gathering.
Dr. Gemmill, acting medical officer of health for the local health unit, said last week in a press conference that a dedicated team from the health unit follows adherence to health unit guidelines and virus activity in schools and will continue to do so when school reconvenes.
“Schools have to be a priority because it’s one of these things that is essential, it’s not part of the stay-at-home order theoretically and if kids have to go to school then we have to be there to ensure the measures are in place,” he told media.
Prior to the school break happening, Dr. Gemmill said very few cases of COVID-19 were attributed to school transmission.
“Am I worried that there will be a lot of outbreaks in schools if schools go back? The answer is from the experience we’ve had so far, it appears that schools are not contributing hugely to a spread, and it appears that we are not seeing outbreaks in the school setting,” he said. “I am very concerned, very concerned, about social gatherings, about people visiting, about all the things we know happened over the Christmas [holiday], amongst, I’m going to say adults, primarily, that did cause a spread to occur and it did amplify the occurrence of this disease in the population. That’s why we were getting up over 3,000, close to 4,000 cases in Ontario per day.”
In the health unit’s jurisdiction, which includes Haliburton County, City of Kawartha Lakes and Northumberland County, Gemmill said in the past 14 days, “a handful of kids,” under the age of 10, about six or eight, tested positive for COVID-19, which he said was “not very many at all.”
“Before the break when school was in session, we did follow up with every single case that occurred in kids in schools, and while there were some cases, the cases were not associated with continued transmission within the school,” he said. “In other words, yes there may have been a case acquired, I don’t know, socially among kids being together outside the school, or in some other venue, maybe a family gathering or whatever, but there was not evidence of spread within the school. In other words we didn’t have a lot of other cases coming out of the classrooms where cases had occurred. So that tells me, it’s basically an observation, where there’s a case in the school, if you do all the right things, you’re not going to have much spread so that’s why I’m hopeful that when schools reconvene that this trend will continue. It seems to be not the amplifier of disease that social gatherings, particularly of older groups, has been causing.”
At the time when staff and students returned to school in September last year, there were no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Haliburton County, with 15 cases since March being reported as resolved, and the province reporting just more than 300 cases on Sept. 14. Returning to school now, on Jan. 25, there were seven current cases of COVID-19 in Haliburton County reported in the week prior, and the province was reporting confirmed COVID-19 cases that had decreased from a week prior, with a rolling average standing at just over 2,700.
In the evening on Jan. 22, TLDSB sent information reminding parents of the in-person start date of Jan. 25, and noting the standard health and safety measures that have been in place throughout the school year thus far as well as new measures that have put in place.
As before, parents and guardians must screen their child for symptoms every day before they come to school using a Ministry of Health Ontario COVID-19 self-assessment tool and students in all grades are required to wear a mask at school and on the school bus.
A new measure is that elementary students should wear masks outside during recess and breaks, with students needing a mask break to be given a designated space that maintains a minimum six feet distance from others. Also new, is that secondary students outside on school property or leaving the property for breaks must wear a mask, and are not to congregate in groups larger than five and outside of their cohort.
“We are still in a stay-at-home order,” reads the note home to TLDSB families. “Therefore, please do not congregate before and after school.”
Public schools closed in Ontario last year on March 13, as the novel coronavirus first began to spread across Ontario. Schools opened again in September, with about 15 per cent of students in the TLDSB region opting to study virtually through the board’s online program.
Schools in Grey-Bruce Health Unit; Hastings and Prince Edward Counties Health Unit; Kingston, Frontenac and Lennox and Addington Health Unit; Leeds, Grenville and Lanark District Health Unit; Peterborough Public Health; Renfrew County and District Health Unit and the Haliburton, Kawartha, Pine Ridge District Health Unit were expected to return to in-person learning on Monday. Schools in the Toronto, Peel Region, York Region, Windsor-Essex County and Hamilton public health units will be teaching classes remotely until Feb. 10. Students in northern Ontario were able to return to in-person learning earlier, however some health units opted instead to extend remote learning for students. The provincial government has said that in-person school attendance is optional for the 2020-2021 school year for both elementary and secondary students.
“This allows you to make decisions that work best for your family,” reads the Ontario.ca website. Remote learning, either synchronous or asynchronous, or paper-based learning is available through TLDSB. For more information about local cases visit www.hkpr.on.ca.
For more information about COVID-19 cases in schools and child care centres visit www.ontario.ca/page/covid-19-cases-schools-and-child-care-centres. Since March, 7,324 school-related cases and 1,632 confirmed cases in child care centres and homes have been reported on that site.
TLDSB COVID-19 information and updates can be found at tldsb.ca/covid19/.
For more information about the province’s reopening schools information, visit https://www.ontario.ca/page/covid-19-reopening-schools.
– with files from Mike Baker