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Parents anxiously await news on whether schools will reopen in January


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Like many parents in the province, Shoshanah Deaton is waiting anxiously for news on whether schools will reopen in January.

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The Ottawa mom of two children who attend the Francojeunesse elementary school is also a family doctor who works at a COVID-19 assessment centre in Rockland, so she has a front-row seat on the situation as cases rise across Ontario.

Deaton says her kids need school — a position echoed by pediatricians, mental health experts, educators and working parents who will have to scramble if students are once again shifted to online classes at home.

But Deaton is not optimistic.

“I don’t think schools can safely open in January,” she says.

“If they open, officials need to be honest that widespread infections will occur. There can’t be any mincing of words or hygiene theatre anymore. Teachers will be given N95 (masks), though I highly doubt students will be given appropriate masks, but what will happen when all these people eat and drink?”

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COVID-19 testing centres in Ottawa are overwhelmed. There are delays in contact tracing.

At Francojeunesse, Deaton and some parents spent a couple of frantic days before Christmas notifying other parents themselves, using Facebook and email, about two positive cases at the school. They were worried that children exposed to COVID-19 who should have been isolating might be going to holiday gatherings instead with grandparents and other vulnerable people.

The ability to test, trace and isolate is a cornerstone of infection management, says Deaton.

Additional safety measures at school would also help, such as more air filters, higher-quality masks and smaller classes, she says.

“But I’m not sure an umbrella is enough when there’s a tornado. I think these (measures) will be key, but numbers have to come down a bit first before I consider it safe to send my kids back.”

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Fellow parent Mindy Sichel says she’s torn. The online classes adopted sporadically during the first two school years of the pandemic were a “disaster” for her son, now 11, she says.

But her son has only one vaccine dose. Sichel worries about him going back to in-person classes. “I’m pretty terrified by the (COVID) numbers.”

Premier Doug Ford said Tuesday the province will decide about schools in the next couple of days.

In Ottawa, classes are supposed to resume at English-language schools on Jan. 3 and at French-language schools on Jan. 10.

At a media conference Dec. 21, Ontario Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore repeated his commitment to keeping schools open and said he saw no reason at that time to delay a return to in-person classes, but was watching the situation carefully.

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In Ottawa, the last several weeks before schools were dismissed for the holidays featured an explosion of outbreaks.

On Dec. 23, the last day of classes for the French-language boards, there were open outbreaks at 22 elementary and 10 secondary schools. Eight French-language schools were listed as closed due to COVID-19.

If schools reopen in January when community transmission of the virus is high, they may also face problems functioning if substantial numbers of staff are exposed and must isolate. That’s what happened earlier this month in the COVID-19 hot spot of Kingston, when schools were closed at the Limestone District School Board because of staff shortages and difficulty finding replacements.

At the same time, experts stress the devastating impact on the mental health and social development of children when schools close to in-person learning.

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School closures should be part of pandemic control measures “only in the most catastrophic of circumstances,” Ontario’s COVID-19 science advisory table said in a report last summer.

“The physical, emotional, and developmental health of children and youth has been deeply impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and restrictions placed on schools. School disruptions, including school closures and implementation of education models that have reduced direct interaction between children, their peers, and their teachers (e.g., online learning), have led to significant learning disruption, exacerbated educational inequities and deprived children of other supports and activities available through schools including food programs, physical activity and sports and clubs and teams.”

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Ontario already had the longest interruption of face-to-face learning in Canada at the time, the report noted.

The decision about what happens with schools is ultimately up to the government, Moore said.

What could be done to improve school safety? Doctors, nurses, epidemiologists, education unions, school boards, parent groups and Opposition politicians at Queen’s Park have made lots of suggestions. Here are four of the most commonly cited:

Vaccination: Vaccination is the key tool in protecting against COVID-19. Children aged five to 11 are being vaccinated now but most won’t have two doses (plus two weeks) until February-March.

Education unions asked the government to give priority for booster doses to educators.

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The provincial government has resisted pressure to require teachers and other educators to be vaccinated, although a few boards, including the English and French-language public boards in Ottawa, have implemented their own mandatory vaccination policies.

Dr. Moore has rejected the idea of adding the COVID-19 vaccine to the list of immunizations required for students to attend school. He has said it’s too early to make that change, and also noted the province’s Immunization of School Pupils Act doesn’t make vaccination mandatory anyway because parents can get an exemption for their child.

Ventilation and air filtration: Ontario says ventilation improvements have been made at all schools and air filters have been added to many classrooms. Critics say more could be done, including measuring air quality, implementing standards and placing filters in every classroom.

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Better masks: The Ministry of Education has apparently agreed to let school boards order N95 masks for teachers, according to one education union. However, the ministry declined to confirm whether this would happen, who would get the masks and when.

Several school boards, including the Ottawa-Carleton Board, have agreed to let education staff wear N95 masks if they buy their own.

Rapid antigen tests: The Ministry of Education made 11 million rapid tests available for elementary and secondary students to use at home during the holidays. The goal is to identify infections and keep them out of schools as students return to class.

Critics have called on the government to make regular rapid testing available to both students and staff when school resumes. However, there’s a shortage of tests, according to Premier Ford, who says Ontario is trying to source more.

The government has also made take-home tests available at schools.

jmiller@postmedia.com

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