Editorial Cartoon by Graeme MacKay, The Hamilton Spectator – Saturday January 8, 2022
Ontario schools reopen (maybe) in two weeks. What can be done to make them safer from COVID-19?
Ontario has delayed reopening elementary and secondary schools for at least two weeks in response to a meteoric rise in COVID-19 cases.
What are the chances that in-person classes can resume as tentatively scheduled on Jan. 17?
The provincial government says it’s adding new layers of protection from N95 masks for teachers to extra HEPA air filters. At the same time, key elements of the infection-control trio of “test, trace and isolate” have been dismantled in the face of the skyrocketing case counts.
The government is under pressure from all sides: pandemic-weary parents scrambling to work themselves while dealing with another round of online classes at home; pediatricians warning of the harm to children caused by school closures; teachers, principals and school staff and some scientists and doctors calling for additional safety measures.
Everyone agrees students need to resume in-person classes as soon as possible. The debate is over what is required to make schools safe enough to send students back and keep them there.
The Ottawa Citizen sifted through government memos, news releases and public comments by officials to get a clearer picture of what changes are already in store for schools and analyzed suggestions from education unions, associations representing principals, parent groups, public health officials, doctors and and epidemiologists on what else is needed.
- Since the pandemic began, public health experts have said the best way to keep schools safe from COVID-19 is to control the spread of the disease in the community.
- The government says the quiz that students and staff must take each day before school will be changed to make it more sensitive to symptoms associated with the Omicron variant, although as of Wednesday that had not been done.
- The delay in opening schools will allow more time for school staff to get booster shots and children ages five to 11 to receive their first and second doses.
- Because of overwhelming demand, the Ontario government has restricted PCR testing at assessment centres to people at higher risk of COVID-19 or those who work in higher-risk settings. Schools are currently not categorized as high risk.
Education Minister Stephen Lecce says Ontario leads Canada in improving ventilation at schools. All schools have improved their ventilation systems, from installing higher quality filters to recalibrating systems to increase the amount of fresh air circulating.
In addition, schools without mechanical ventilation systems, and all kindergarten classrooms, have been provided with HEPA air filters that remove virus particles from the air. Some school boards have gone further, such as the two Toronto English boards, which used reserve funds to place HEPA filters in every classroom.
Critics call for a HEPA unit in every classroom. How many units would that require for Ontario’s 4,844 publicly-funded schools? The Ministry of Education did not reply to that question. (The Ottawa Citizen)