Tracking COVID-19 in schools

By Sue Tiffin

Parents and caregivers, as well as Ontarians in general, concerned about confirmed COVID-19 cases in class or at daycare will be able to track outbreaks of the virus at schools and child care centres across the province on a new website launched by the provincial government on Sept. 11. The site shares information about COVID-19 cases of students and staff in Ontario schools and child care centres by 10:30 a.m. each weekday. On the day of its launch, 13 schools across the province were reporting confirmed cases of the virus.

“The premier and our government made a promise to parents, that we would ensure that they would have access to the same information that we have,” said a joint statement released Sept. 11 by Minister of Education Stephen Lecce and Peter Bethlenfalvy, president of the treasury board and minister responsible for the Ontario Digital Service. “Over the last several weeks, we have been working with the Ministry of Health, the Ontario Digital Service and public health authorities, to ensure a rapid and transparent exchange of local COVID-19 data.”

The opposition New Democratic Party had asked the Ford government to commit to posting an online list of all schools with COVID-19 cases, while maintaining student and staff privacy.
“Of course we all hope that COVID-19 doesn’t make its way into schools, but we believe parents, students and staff including supply teachers should be informed if it does,” said Marit Stiles, NDP education critic. “With so much pressure being put on staff, students and their families to monitor symptoms and follow protocols, they deserve information and transparency.”

The NDP had also pushed for an online listing of long-term care homes with COVID-19 cases and outbreaks. Long-term care and retirement homes have seen numerous outbreaks since the beginning of the pandemic, with almost 6,000 confirmed cases in Ontario reported to be long-term care residents, 2,657 cases reported as a health-care worker associated with long-term care outbreaks and 1,825 of the province’s 2,813 deaths reported as being long-term care home residents or staff.
“The Ford government tried to downplay and hide the growing tragedy in long-term care homes as the virus swept in,” said Stiles. “We can’t let them make the same mistake with our children.”

Ford announced the new school and child care website reporting on Sept. 9.
“I think it’s so important that we report every single case as we did with long-term care,” Ontario Premier Doug Ford told reporters at a news conference last week. “We’ll do the same in school.”

Locally, the Haliburton, Kawartha, Pine Ridge District Health Unit will continue providing updates on the number of confirmed cases through its own website, while school boards and schools are required to have a COVID-19 advisory section on their website where information about confirmed cases will be posted. The health unit is encouraging parents and caregivers to visit their local health unit website for updated information and links to the school board reopening plans as information is being updated regularly.

“Based on the operational guidance from the ministry, an outbreak is defined as two or more confirmed cases in students and/or staff with an epidemiological link, within a 14-day period, where at least one case would have reasonably acquired the infection in the school,” said Chandra Tremblay of the health unit, noting: “There may be situations where a staff or student tests positive for COVID-19, but the exposure was not in the school and an outbreak is not declared.”
Parents have been asked to commit to screen daily for symptoms within their family prior to sending their children to school.

The Trillium Lakelands District School Board has been working with local public health units in creating the return to school plans. Elementary students across the district who are attending in-person have had staggered starts with both elementary and secondary school students returning back to school full-time this week.
“TLDSB has been working with local health units throughout the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Sinead Fegan, TLDSB communications officer. “The return to school plans for both staff and for students were reviewed by public health prior to publishing and sharing. However, student illness and COVID-19 outbreak protocols were developed after receiving information from the Ministry of Education and Ministry of Health on Aug. 26.”

Fegan said on Sept. 10 the school board was working with local health units to “determine exactly who will receive information and when,” in relation to confirmed cases of COVID-19 in schools.
“Typically if there is a confirmed case of COVID-19, the health unit will know this first (due to receiving testing results),” she said of the reporting process. “Public health will then be responsible for contacting all those who have been in contact with individuals with COVID-19. Schools will assist public health with this contact tracing. The school board will need to balance the need to protect the privacy of individuals with determining how information will be shared beyond. Once we have this determined, we will let our school communities know our process.”

Though parents and volunteers are not being granted access to school buildings right now, Fegan said anyone who does enter TLDSB schools and buses, including bus drivers, teachers, school staff and students, must do a daily health assessment.
“If they have any of the symptoms on the health assessment chart, they are not to ride a bus or attend at a school, they are to follow instructions on the Ministry of Health COVID-19 assessment page, and not return to school or ride a bus until there are no symptoms,” she said.

Though parents and caregivers have expressed concern related to students having the symptoms of seasonal allergies or colds and flu at this time of year, Fegan clarified: “All students, staff, and essential visitors who have any of the symptoms persisting for more than a few hours, and for whom the symptoms are new and not related to seasonal allergies or pre-existing medical conditions, must stay home, and should be tested for COVID-19 if advised to do so by a medical professional.”

Should someone become ill while at school, they will be isolated – students being supervised with a staff member wearing full PPE – and either go directly home, if staff, or wait to be picked up by a guardian. The area where the person has isolated, as well as the classroom, will then be disinfected.
“We know that seasonal flu and colds persist at this time of the year, however if the person’s symptoms relate to COVID-19 symptoms on the health assessment chart, then this will be reported to the health unit and the school will follow direction from public health at that point,” said Fegan.
Public health would determine at what point an entire class would be quarantined, or a school would be closed, with schools reporting each day the number of absences to the board and to the Ministry of Education.
“This will be closely monitored,” said Fegan.

The TLDSB community is asked to continue to monitor the board’s Return to School page.
“We expect there will be ongoing updates as new information arrives and we update our documents,” said Fegan. “We know this is a challenging time for everyone involved. If any family needs assistance, please contact the school. We appreciate everyone’s patience and understanding.”

As of Sept. 14, there were no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Haliburton County, with 15 cases previously listed as being resolved. On its launch on Sept. 11, the new school and child care centre case tracking website had listed, of 4,828 schools that were reopening, 13 current school-related cases – four students and nine staff – in schools in Ottawa, Pickering, Oakville, Brampton, Mississauga and Waterloo. Of 5,500 licensed child care centres in Ontario and more than 120 licensed home child care agencies in Ontario, 56 of them have seen COVID-19 cases – 30 children and 26 staff – with 18 centres closing and 64 homes closing. As of Sept. 14, 44,817 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in Ontario, with 39,974 of those cases resolved. The province reported 313 cases on Sept. 14.

Public schools closed in Ontario on March 13, as the novel coronavirus first began to spread across Ontario. In the TLDSB region, 15 per cent of students opted to study virtually through the board’s online program, which has been delayed in beginning and is expected to start Sept. 21.

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