Prepare for sudden class or school closures, parent advice says

Parents should have emergency plans for children and watch their emails, says a letter from the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board.

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Ottawa’s largest school board has warned parents that staff absences could cause classes or schools to close on short notice after schools reopen on Monday.

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The board will attempt to notify parents at least the day before any closures, says a letter sent to parents on Friday by the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board.

“We will do everything possible to keep classes and schools open, but if we cannot operate safely, a class or school may have to switch to remote learning until we can organize proper coverage.”

Parents should have emergency plans for children and watch their emails, the letter says.

Schools across the province are preparing for what could be high levels of absences among students and staff as in-person classes resume when community COVID-19 rates are high.

The chair of the Ottawa-Carleton school board has also written to Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce to express concerns about plans to reopen schools in the province.

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The first of these concerns, wrote Lynn Scott, is the need to continue to track and report confirmed and suspected cases of COVID-19 in schools.

The government has suspended notification of COVID-19 cases in schools and families will no longer be notified of cases among classmates or cohorts such as other bus drivers.

It’s part of broader changes to Ontario’s testing and contact tracing system after it was overwhelmed by the wave of Omicron variant cases.

The lab-based PCR tests that formed the basis of schools’ reporting and tracking system for COVID-19 have been limited to high-risk people and settings like hospitals and long-term care homes. Instead, school staff and students are offered rapid antigen tests that can be done at home.

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The provincial Department of Education says it now plans to assess the prevalence of COVID-19 in schools by tracking the number of absent students and staff.

If absences exceed normal levels by more than 30%, the principal must notify local public health authorities. The province will release online attendance statistics beginning Jan. 24, according to a ministry memo to school boards.

Scott’s letter said absences were an “imprecise and inadequate indicator for understanding the prevalence of COVID-19 in schools.”

Children are absent from school for many reasons, says the January 14 letter, written at the request of all administrators.

Board Chair Lynn Scott to Education Minister Stephen Lecce told absences are a
Board Chair Lynn Scott to Education Minister Stephen Lecce said absences are an “imprecise and inadequate indicator for understanding the prevalence of COVID-19 in schools”. Photo by Jacquie Miller /Postmedia

Families shouldn’t have to rely on “uninformative absence reports or community rumours” to determine if their child was exposed to COVID-19 at school, or if the overall risk of the virus at school. school exceeds their family risk tolerance, the letter states.

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Students and staff should have access to PCR testing if they have symptoms or are at high risk at school so that cases of COVID-19 can be tracked and reported, the letter says.

Rapid antigen testing is also needed to support a “back test” strategy for students and staff who have been sick with COVID-19 or exposed to the virus, the letter says.

The province said two rapid antigen tests will be distributed to every student and staff member starting next week. More tests are expected to become available later as supplies arrive from the federal government.

Scott’s letter also asked the province to make medical, untested N95 masks available to students.

Staff have been receiving medical masks since last year and the province plans to issue them N95 masks next week.

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For students, the province said three-ply cloth masks will be distributed to any student who wishes.

Scott’s letter also called for adequate long-term funding to upgrade the school’s ventilation systems.

The province said improvements have been made to ventilation systems in all schools, such as upgrading to higher quality filters and recalibrating systems to increase the flow of fresh air.

Portable HEPA air filters were also provided to schools without mechanical ventilation systems and to all kindergarten classes. Critics have called for HEPA filters for every classroom.

Ontario’s two million elementary and secondary students have been temporarily shifted to online learning at home after the Christmas holidays.

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The Ministry of Education has ordered school board administrators to do everything they can to keep schools open.

To help fill staffing shortages and absences, the government will allow first-year students from the Faculty of Education to fill in. Sophomores are already in class with temporary teaching certificates since last year. Additionally, the number of days retired teachers are allowed to work in classrooms this school year has been increased to 95 from 50.

Schools can introduce rotating remote learning days or allow students from different grades to be combined if necessary to keep schools open, the ministry said.

However, Ottawa-Carleton School Board staff told administrators at a meeting this week that administrators would likely close classes before mixing students from different classes because it would violate the cohort.

Cohort – keeping students in the same class as much as possible – has been a key measure to reduce the spread of the virus at school.

jmiller@postmedia.com

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