Coronavirus Canada: Rising COVID-19 cases in northern Ontario schools raise concerns as reopenings set for Monday

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Northern school boards — the first in the province to resume in-person classes after an extended holiday break — are reporting at least 14 COVID-19 outbreaks among students, staff and other unidentified individuals since returning Jan. 11.

With 280,000 children scheduled to return to in-person learning in Ottawa, London, eastern Ontario and southwest Ontario on Monday, rising cases of the virus in northern schools have spurred conversation around the safety of the province’s school reopening plan.

“We honestly felt that up until now, we’ve had luck on our side,” said Chantal Rancourt, the president of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association’s Sudbury Elementary Union. “Unfortunately, that luck has run out.”

Six schools in Sudbury have reported cases of COVID-19, totalling 22 cases. A recent outbreak at St. David Catholic School makes up over half of confirmed cases; to date, there have been 13 associated with the school. Most recently, Public Health Sudbury and Districts (PHSD) reported an outbreak in St. Charles College the evening of Jan. 26 after three people tested positive for COVID-19.

In accordance with provincial guidance, an outbreak in a school setting is declared when two or more laboratory-confirmed cases of COVID-19 are linked and occur within 14 days of each other.

Locally, the union has been pushing for schools to switch to virtual learning for two weeks when there is a confirmed case to allow Sudbury public health time to ensure the spread of the virus is controlled, and trace contacts.

Rancourt said the union worries about the safety of schools in the region. Children in classes with 20 to 30 students can’t maintain a two-metre distance. Students are required to eat lunch without masks. Additionally, schools need to guarantee proper ventilation in all classrooms, Rancourt said.

“We have concerns about not having any sort of targeted testing in the schools, ” said Rancourt. “Without being able to ensure there’s no asymptomatic carriers, the chance of spread is greater.”

In an internal memo obtained by the Star, the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association echoed Chantal’s sentiments, citing “grave concerns” about the government’s decisions to reopen schools without implementing appropriate health and safety measures.

“Despite the government’s repeated claims that ‘additional layers of protection’ have been added, including asymptomatic testing and stricter screening protocols, reports from local OECTA leaders across the province indicate there is little evidence these are in place.”

The education ministry told the Star on Thursday that asymptomatic testing is being deployed to schools experiencing outbreaks in Sudbury, but didn’t provide details.

“We want the schools to open,” Rancourt said. “We want to be face to face — you can’t replicate learning online.”

As of Thursday, the province is reporting 35 COVID-19 cases in northern Ontario schools and 352 active cases in total in northern Ontario. Cities affected by school outbreaks include Sudbury, Sault Ste. Marie, Hearst, Rainy River, Thunder Bay and Kawartha Lakes.

In a statement Jan. 22, Dr. Penny Sutcliffe, medical officer of health with Public Health Sudbury and Districts, said broader testing of the school community combined with isolation will limit further spread.

“These are difficult times, and we understand the strain that families are experiencing,” Sutcliffe said. “These measures and your ability to follow public health guidance are critical to helping us stop the spread of COVID-19.”

The role of schools in community transmission is still unclear, partly because children are more likely to be asymptomatic than adults. In November, the province launched a four-week pilot program for voluntary asymptomatic testing of students and staff in Toronto, Peel, York and Ottawa. However, the ministry did not provide a detailed breakdown of results.

In early January, Education Minister Stephen Lecce said surveillance testing would become available province-wide in time for school reopening — a promise that still hasn’t been fulfilled.

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