Students and parents will wait another week to learn how their schools will deal with COVID-19 when Ontario classrooms reopen in early September, while nurses demand proof they’ve been properly ventilated.
With no official word yet on what rules will apply to limit its spread, parents say (among other things) that they want an easy way to know if their children have been exposed to the virus, which has kept students home from school for 26 weeks, the longest of any province.
“You better have non-invasive tests ready for September if u expect <12 to have 2 tests in that 10-day period,” said one parent on Twitter, using the popular #OntEd hashtag to join a vigorous online debate on the subject of how to protect those younger than 12, who are not currently eligible to get vaccinated.
Nicole, a small business owner with two children aged nine and four, made the comments a day after the province’s chief medical officer said unvaccinated people (such as elementary students) identified as a contact of a high-risk person could miss up to 20 days from school.
She told Canada's National Observer it would be difficult to have them out of school, and said the provincial government should lower the size of classes and add more paid sick days.
Fully immunized students and staff would face minimal interruption from work or school if they come in contact with a “high-risk” carrier of the virus and test negative for COVID-19, top health official Kieran Moore said on Tuesday.
Premier Doug Ford said on Wednesday that his education minister will have “a very comprehensive plan” to present early next week, after receiving a string of blunt recommendations from various stakeholders.
The Registered Nurses Association of Ontario (RNAO) added to that list of interested parties on Wednesday, calling on the Ford government to mandate vaccines for teachers who don’t have medical exemptions, reduce class sizes, improve ventilation and mandate indoor masking.
“We ask you: Has the funding from the federal government flowed from the province to the school boards?” the organization’s chief executive Doris Grinspun and president Morgan Hoffarth wrote in an open letter to the premier.
“Have the COVID-19 closures been utilized to do the building renovations and engineering work? Was this funding sufficient to meet the proper standards? We require full disclosure and full accountability from the government and school boards on these crucial matters,” they said.
A spokesperson for Education Minister Stephen Lecce has previously said the government had invested over $750 million to improve ventilation in the province’s schools, including buying 55,000 portable HEPA air filtration units and 20,000 other air ventilation devices. Much of that is federal funding.
Premier Doug Ford says Ontario will have “a very comprehensive plan” on school reopening next week, while nurses want to see the province mandate vaccines for teachers who don’t have medical exemptions, reduce class sizes and improve ventilation.
Most of the air-quality projects listed on a government database have a completion date of Dec. 31, 2021, but the ministry has raised concerns of boards making that deadline, and it could be extended to the end of 2023 or even 2024 for rural projects.
“RNAO is concerned about the lack of action on ventilation: an essential measure to keep people safe who are indoors,” the nurses’ letter said.
It said public health measures and government policy have been slow to respond to evidence that COVID-19 is transmitted by aerosols as well as droplets, making transmission more likely in poorly ventilated indoor areas.
The province’s science advisory table provided a detailed recommendation for long-term ventilation upgrades in a report last week that stressed the need to keep children safe and in classrooms as much as possible.
The group has also said vaccine certificates could speed the reopening of high-risk settings, but the government has given no indication that it plans to make teachers or other education workers get the vaccine or face additional restrictions at work.
(In the United States, where coronavirus cases are surging among the unvaccinated, President Joe Biden is expected to announce civilian federal employees must be vaccinated or submit to regular testing, social distancing, mask requirements and restrictions on most travel, two people familiar with the president’s plans said Wednesday.)
Provincial vaccine data shows almost two-thirds of youth aged 12 to 17 have received one dose, while 42 per cent have been fully immunized, which leaves more than 300,000 eligible Ontario students unprotected by any vaccine with just six weeks remaining of the summer holidays.
An easing of access had boosted second-dose bookings for young people in July, but it didn’t have nearly the same effect on those needing first doses.
They must wait at least 28 days after a first dose to get a second dose, and it will take two weeks after that to offer full protection.
“The minister is going to be coming out early next week and rolling out that plan. It's a very comprehensive plan,” Ford said. “Changing everything from the HEPA filters, to making sure they have proper ventilation in the schools, proper protocols and enhancing those.”
“But we'll be ready, and I know I have all the confidence in the world in our teachers as well, but the kids need to get back to school, they want to get back to school, and the parents want them back to school, so we'll make sure they're back to school at the beginning of September,” he said.
Morgan Sharp / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer