Adam: Ontario needs to keep tracking COVID in our schools

It’s hard to understand why the provincial government would stop doing this, especially as Omicron is spreading widely and hospitalizations are hitting new peaks.

Rashaun Robinson, 11, receives his first vaccine at a vaccination clinic in Scarborough on Dec. 10, 2021. Although more and more children are vaccinated, we need to keep a close watch on COVID numbers in our schools. NICK LACHANCE / REUTERS

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Getting kids back to the classroom for in-person learning amid the Omicron surge was always going to be controversial, given the deep divide on the issue among parents. The Ontario government wasn’t going to win, whatever decision it made.

But the government made matters worse with new rules under which parents were no longer required to notify schools or public health authorities if their children tested positive for COVID-19, and unvaccinated students were no longer required to isolate if they had symptoms. Parents were suddenly left in a bind, denied information they needed to protect their kids and vulnerable family members until absenteeism rose to 30 per cent above normal levels. The new rules, which went against previous policy, made no sense whatsoever, and it’s not surprising that most parents are up in arms.

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The bigger surprise is that unlike other public health officials, the normally sure-footed Ottawa medical officer of health, Dr. Vera Etches, went along with the new Ontario plan. “I am sure that word will get around when people are staying at home when they are sick before we reach the 30- per-cent threshold,” she said.

It’s good to know now that school boards around the province are defying the provincial directive and promising to notify parents whenever they have results of COVID tests.

The Ottawa Catholic school board has joined several others, including the Toronto District School Board, in promising to inform parents of COVID cases at schools based on voluntary reporting of test results. The boards are showing the common sense the provincial government so woefully lacked. In a letter to parents earlier this week, the Catholic board said “if the school receives confirmation of a positive COVID test result from a rapid antigen test or PCR test, the school will email you to notify you of this potential case.”

Parents can also voluntarily notify school authorities if a child tests positive. The city’s largest board, the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, sent a letter to the provincial government expressing concern and asking for a restoration of tracking and public reporting of confirmed and suspected cases in schools. Elsewhere, the Niagara region public health unit told parents that it would continue to dismiss unvaccinated cohorts of students where there is a test-confirmed COVID-19 case. “A key reason why we have seen only limited spread of COVID-19 in schools has been that dismissal of cohorts early has stopped the spread of infection,” wrote Dr. Mustafa Hirji, the medical officer of health.

I have two grandchildren in school and the change in reporting COVID cases confounded everybody. Reporting cases is a health and safety issue, and it helps parents to plan ahead and help keep everybody safe. It’s hard to understand why the provincial government would stop it, especially as Omicron is spreading widely and hospitalizations are hitting new peaks.

The government’s decision was based on the fact that children have not been shown to be big spreaders of COVID, and as Omicron hit, schools became one of the casualties of Ontario’s plan to harness scarce resources. Given the “widespread transmission and inability to test all symptomatic individuals, schools will not be routinely notifying students/pupils in classes with a positive case…” the government decreed. Only if absences rose to 30 per cent would public health authorities be notified. By this time, who knows, the infection may already have caused significant damage. But as Dr. Hirji points out, one big reason for low infections in schools is the testing and quick dismissals of those with the virus. Until now, provincial policy required unvaccinated students to isolate for 10 days if someone in their class or cohort had COVID-19, to prevent the spread of the virus at school.

Dealing with COVID is often tricky for governments, but it’s fair to say that Premier Doug Ford made the right call on getting kids back to the classroom. However, the decision to stop tracking and reporting COVID cases in schools was wrong. Let’s just hope all ends well as kids go back to class.

Mohammed Adam is an Ottawa journalist and commentator. Reach his at nylamiles48@gmail.com.

 

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