Weighing the different health metrics for a return to school

By Darren Lum
Students all across Ontario will be learning online the next two weeks, as one of the newly announced measures in the face of rising COVID-19 case counts and the threat to the province’s healthcare system.
Premier Doug Ford made the announcement to take the province to a modified version of Step Two of the province’s Roadmap to Reopen, which was implemented last year, on Jan. 5 at 12:01 a.m. with his ministers of health and finance, Ontario chief medical officer of health and the CEO of Ontario Health on Monday, Jan.3.
This decision comes only a few days after the province’s chief medical officer of health Dr. Kieran Moore said the return from school holidays would start on Wednesday, which would enable schools the time to provide N95 masks to staff and to distribute 3,000 HEPA filter units.

Ford said returning to a modified version of Step Two was a difficult decision, but necessary.
“This may be a bump in the road. A pretty big bump, as I said, we’re going to get hit like a tsunami. I also said brace for impact because some people don’t understand the volume that’s going to hit us,” he said.
He claimed there could be hundreds of thousands of cases each day, so one per cent of those requiring hospitalization would overwhelm health care without these measures, including the two-week return from holiday. He cited Ontario Health modeling that indicates hospitals could be thousands of beds short in the coming weeks with the current rate of cases.
“The level of absenteeism we’re seeing in other sectors tells us with absolute certainty that operating schools ensuring teachers are on the job and not home sick will be a challenge we cannot overcome in the short term,” Ford said. “These two weeks will provide much needed time for more vaccines, more boosters, it’s more time for additional public health measures to blunt the rapid rise in cases and I know online learning is not ideal, but above all else I want to provide students and parents with certainty, not the turmoil of school closures because not enough staff are available to teach our kids.”He recognized this decision will disappoint, confuse and anger, but said it was based on how transmissible the Omicron variant is, which he said spreads like “wildfire.”
After repeated attempts by reporters, government officials would not answer questions about specific steps (outside of what has been done already) that will be taken in the next two weeks to ensure a safe return for students to publicly funded and private schools scheduled on Jan. 17.

Locally, parents were bracing for this news, as it was being leaked Sunday night.
Lauren Wilson, a mother to four elementary aged children, was ready to send her children back this week to J. Douglas Hodgson Elementary School where they are all registered in French immersion.
“They are all vaccinated and I believe the social aspect of school is as important, if not more, than the in-person learning. My four children are all looking forward to going back to school,” she wrote in a message.
Wilson, a health professional, trusts in the effectiveness of the vaccinations.
Her two 12-year-old twins are fully vaccinated, and her two nine-year-old twins will soon join them to get their second dose in the coming week.
Learning a language and developing social skills is something that can’t be done in isolation, she adds.
“The fact that they are in French immersion makes in-person learning that much more [valuable]. I believe the French component had definitely suffered for my youngest because of the stop/start of the school year,” she wrote. “The social aspect is vital and teaches them cooperation, conflict resolution, group work, acceptance, inclusion – most of which can’t necessarily be gained from online learning. As well, just the ability for the kids to run around outside at recess with friends and simply be a kid!”
There are also, she adds, lessons in time management that are only tested with in-person learning such as how her children need to develop “basic skills of organizing the day versus rolling out of bed at 8:55 a.m. in pj’s to sit in front of a screen all day.”

Leah Thomas, who is a mother with a daughter attending Archie Stouffer Elementary School in Minden, concurred with Wilson about the benefits of in-person learning.
“She really struggled with online learning and we do not have access to unlimited internet where we live, so that was also a struggle. It is important for my child to be in class learning and socializing safely with her peers. I believe that the school works hard to make sure our children are thriving the best they can in the world we are dealt with right now, while also ensuring that they are being safe and staying healthy,” she wrote in an online message. “I also have taken the time to talk to my daughter about her preference and she would much rather be in school interacting with her friends than stuck at home. So as a family we have made the decision to send her back to school.”
There were 329 students who committed to online learning using Learn@Home back in June.

It’s been reported the provincial government will stop collecting COVID-19 case numbers from school boards and suspend the reporting of new coronavirus infections among students and staff starting this week. This was included in a memo from the Ministry of Education, which was sent to school board officials on Thursday, Dec. 30, the same day the province announced the return to school would be Jan. 5, two days after the original return date. This change was attributed to changes to case and contact management. Reports of school and child-care closures due to COVID-19 were expected to continue according to the ministry. COVID-19 cases in Ontario schools have been reported for the last 18 months. There has been 12,062 COVID-19 school related cases, including 10, 582 infections among students, which were reported between Aug. 2 and Dec. 24 of 2021.

Wilson, who doesn’t fully believe the numbers really tell the entire picture, said the benefits of in-person learning make it worthwhile, particularly with how she has had her children vaccinated and have had their social circles limited.
“My feeling is that in person learning is so important that it outweighs the risk of sending them to school. At this point, the numbers are so skewed (delays in reporting, under reporting, asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic spreading, false negatives of rapid tests, etc) that the COVID case numbers related to school would not be accurate at this point. The numbers mean nothing without context and if the media would focus on the fact that vaccinations are working – that is, keeping people out of ICUs and preventing COVID-related deaths, then people wouldn’t be as focused on the daily increase in cases,” she wrote.
Thomas appreciates the availability of information and said it’s within the right of all parents to know what is happening at their children’s schools.
“Communication is key. And if these case numbers are reported it gives the parents a chance to make the decision whether or not to keep sending their child or opt for online learning. I believe that should be a choice because many families have different views and should be informed of the case numbers for sure. I know I would like to know,” she wrote.

A day before the press conference with the premier, the possibility of a two-week delay to the restart of school wasn’t going to surprise either Thomas or Wilson.
Thomas wasn’t angry about the two-day delay, acknowledging the likelihood for an adjustment period.
“I hear children will be put back into cohorts and given a designated area for outdoor time like before, I imagine all that needs preparation. With that being said we are definitely preparing for a further delay as it seems to be a recurring trend the last couple of years,” she wrote
Wilson was still processing the possibility, but didn’t think two days made much sense anyway.
“As a working parent, it’s difficult when the kids are at home and I can’t always be here but we made it work before and we will make it work again,” she wrote.