Jarvis: Schools reopen on Monday, now we need to make sure they stay open

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Schools will reopen on Monday, as they should.

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Now we have to make sure they stay open.

Under current Ontario restrictions, you can go to a mall, get a haircut, get a manicure. But kids can’t go to real schools with real teachers, classrooms, and other kids.

Damn it.

This is the third consecutive year that education has been disrupted. Schools have been closed three times, four in Windsor and Essex County. They have been closed for more than 27 weeks in total, longer than anywhere else in Canada and most of Europe.

We agreed that schools should be the last to close and the first to open. It is not an aspiration. It is essential. It is essential that children learn, socialize and develop. We should protect schools like we protect health care.

The data shows student achievement has declined, Ontario’s COVID-19 Science Advisory Table said in its latest report this week, and that “learning disruptions are cumulative and long-lasting.”

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Extreme student absenteeism, defined as missing more than half of classes, is six times higher.

It’s not just learning that’s affected.

“The evidence shows deterioration in children’s mental health that is substantial and sustained,” the report said.

The number of children with clinically significant symptoms of depression and anxiety nearly tripled to one in four
for depression and one in five for anxiety.

The exterior of Dr. David Suzuki Public School in Windsor is shown on Friday.
The exterior of Dr. David Suzuki Public School in Windsor is shown on Friday. Photo by Dan Janisse /Windsor Star

Social isolation was a major factor.

And all of this is unfairly compounded for the most vulnerable children, those from low-income families whose parents work essential jobs and who may not have computers, high-speed internet, a place to study or monitoring.

It is clear that virtual learning does not replace real schools.

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It’s about weighing the risks.

There will be cases of COVID-19 in schools.

But new evidence cited by the science board shows that children and young people between the ages of five and 19 are least likely to suffer serious illness from the Omicron variant. While the hospitalization rate for children under four is 8.7 per 100,000 population, it drops to 1.3 for 5-11 year olds and 1.4 for 12-19 year olds.

And often, hospitalization is associated with other factors like chronic illness or not being vaccinated.

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for children was approved on November 19 and a week later Canada had enough to give the first dose to every child in the country. Yet by Friday only 38% of children in Windsor and Essex County had received the first dose, and the vaccination rate has slowed.

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We know what else we can do to keep schools running safely – proper masks and ventilation, cohorts and distancing, testing and screening. The government provides N95 masks for teachers, three-ply masks for students, HEPA filters and rapid tests.

Here is the big key: controlling COVID-19 in the community.

Closing schools did not significantly reduce the spread of the virus in the community compared to other public health measures, at least before Omicron, according to the scientific table. It’s the opposite. Cases in schools are largely coming from the community.

This is why we need stronger mandates for vaccines.

On Friday, two more deaths from COVID-19 were reported in Windsor and Essex County. There have been 270 other cases, although the number is likely much higher as we are not testing everyone with symptoms. There are a total of 3,716 active cases, 104 people hospitalized, although not all are there primarily due to COVID-19, and 67 outbreaks.

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Some hospitals are overwhelmed. Schools and businesses are closed. Absenteeism in some workplaces is skyrocketing. Omicron hit harder and faster than expected.

Yet we are not doing all we can. We reasoned, based on the evidence. We begged, shamed, reprimanded. We offered prizes. But too many people are still not vaccinated.

Welcome the unvaccinated, says Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole. How about welcoming the rest of us, the children who can’t go to school, the patients whose surgeries have been canceled, who have been laid off or who have lost their businesses, the elderly in long-term care homes who cannot leave their rooms.

This is a public health emergency. And vaccination mandates increase vaccination rates.

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It’s not about punishing people who aren’t vaccinated. This is to protect everyone.

Yes, people have the right to refuse vaccination. But again, this is a public health emergency. No one has the right to endanger others. And that’s what the unvaccinated are doing by spreading the virus and filling hospitals.

All healthcare workers should be vaccinated. All educators and students must be vaccinated. Everyone who lives and works in congregate settings should be vaccinated.

Quebec has announced that you must be vaccinated to enter liquor and cannabis stores. Ontario should. You have to be vaccinated to go to big box stores, announced Quebec. Ontario should do this and add all non-essential stores and services. If you want a vaccine passport, you need a booster shot, as soon as everyone has had the opportunity to get one, also announced Quebec. Ontario should do it too.

We have the means. Now we need the will.

ajarvis@postmedia.com

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