Hamilton

'Schools are not safe:' Union leaders want Hamilton schools closed amid more COVID-19 cases

Union leaders at Hamilton school boards are calling for full remote learning as students and staff continue to contract COVID-19. They're also casting doubt on Premier Doug Ford's insistence that schools are safe right now.

Hamilton schools saw 143 new COVID-19 cases in 8 days

Union leaders representing Hamilton educators want schools closed. (Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press)

Union leaders at Hamilton school boards are calling for full remote learning as students and staff continue to contract COVID-19.

Nick de Koning, the local Ontario English Catholic Teacher's Association president, said Hamilton schools should be closed.

"Schools are not safe, people are contracting COVID-19 in schools, staff members as well as students. To somehow suggest they're safe is a lie," he said in a phone interview on Tuesday.

"'I'm challenging them to show us the data, and I don't believe they have it."

His comments came on the same afternoon Ontario Premier Doug Ford said the opposite.

"Schools are safe. Folks, across the province, we're looking at 98.5 per cent, almost 99 per cent of the schools are currently open," Ford said during a Tuesday afternoon news conference, listing more statistics to support a minority of students have been infected.

"Where we saw the problem, and everyone remembers this, is Christmas. When the kids go back into the community, that's where it's happening. It's not happening in the schools."

Ontario Premier Doug Ford answers questions from the media at the Seneca College mass vaccination site during the COVID-19 pandemic in Toronto on Tuesday, April 6, 2021. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

But Jeff Sorensen, president of the Hamilton-Wentworth Elementary Teachers' Local union — like de Koning — said he was troubled schools haven't been closed.

"On a daily basis, as much as a thousand individuals spend extended periods of time together with substantially less strict protocols [that] exist than in most retail stores. For example, students are not [two metres] apart and a significant number don't wear masks," he wrote.

Daryl Jerome, the local Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation president, also criticized the province.

"The government's enhanced safety protocols were nothing but a smoke-screen; there have been no tangible increases in health and safety and my members feel exposed," he wrote in an email.

"We have received numerous emails over the long weekend from members who are scared to go to work this week. They see the steady increase in cases in the school community and are terrified to potentially bring home the virus which is now impacting those in younger age demographics."

WATCH: The students who fell through the cracks when school moved online

The students who fell through the cracks when school moved online

The National

3 months ago
2:03
When the COVID-19 pandemic forced schools to close, tens of thousands of students never moved to online learning and many have effectively dropped out. 2:03

This follows Peel Public Health and Toronto Public Health closing schools in their regions due to rising COVID-19 infections.

It also comes as Hamilton students and school staff made up 143 COVID-19 infections in eight days. 

Public health says it is keeping close eye on schools

On Monday, Hamilton's public and Catholic school boards said they would continue in-person learning and there were no discussions of entering full remote learning. They said that despite warning of a potential move to full remote learning late last week.

During a Tuesday media briefing, Dr. Elizabeth Richardson, the city's medical officer of health, said there's still a "very active conversation" around if schools should close or not.

She pointed to a statement from the Children's Health Coalition — which includes McMaster Children's Hospital — that says the province has "failed our children" by closing schools instead of enhancing public health measures.

"This isn't just a COVID-19 decision, this is a decision about what impacts do they have on kids, particularly in those families that are also being disproportionately impacted by this entire situation. We're trying to respect both sides of that balance," Richardson said.

In a statement on Monday afternoon, Hamilton Public Health Services (HPHS) also reiterated cases in schools are a reflection of community spread.

HWDSB saw more than 1,000 COVID absences in one day

Sorensen said Hamilton's public school board recorded more than 1,000 absences in one day, and said many of them were linked to the novel coronavirus.

"Many of these absences were unfilled by an occasional teacher which causes cohorts to be broken and teachers exposed to more potential vectors of transmission. The board is limping into the break," he wrote.

Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board spokesperson Shawn McKillop confirmed the board recorded more than 1,000 absences on Friday, March 26.

He said they were COVID-19 related which includes "staff ill with covid, staff not passing the daily screening, and staff isolating as a result of being deemed a close contact by public health."

"173 of these positions went unfilled and we redeployed system staff this morning to maintain school and system safety. We have not crossed 1,000 any other day this year," McKillop wrote.

143 school COVID-19 cases in 8 days

In the past eight days, Hamilton's English and French schools reported 143 new cases among staff and students. There are also at least four cases in private schools.

That's an average of almost 18 cases related to schools per day.

Cases reported Tuesday include:

  • Three public school students in remote learning.
  • Two Sir Allan MacNab Secondary School students.
  • One Lawfield Elementary School student.
  • One Ancaster Meadow Elementary School student.
  • One Saltfleet District High School student.
  • One student and one staff member at Bishop Ryan Catholic Secondary School.
  • One St. Thomas More Catholic Secondary School staff member.
  • One Sts. Peter & Paul Catholic Elementary School student.

There are also 11 active outbreaks in schools including:

  • Seven students and six staff at École élémentaire Pavillon de la jeunesse (which screened positive for a variant of concern).
  • One student and one staff at École élémentaire catholique Monseigneur-de-Laval (which screened positive for a variant of concern).
  • Seven students at Sts. Peter & Paul Catholic Elementary School.
  • Three students at St. Bernadette Catholic Elementary School (which screened positive for a variant of concern).
  • Two students at St. Clare of Assisi Catholic Elementary School.
  • Two students and a staff member from the Kiwanis Boys and Girls Club at Viscount Montgomery Elementary School (which screened positive for a variant of concern).
  • Two students at Lisgar Elementary School (which screened positive for a variant of concern).
  • Two students at  Lake Avenue Elementary School (which screened positive for a variant of concern).
  • Two students at Ancaster Meadow Elementary School (which screened positive for a variant of concern).
  • Two students and one staff member at St. Thérèse of Lisieux Secondary School.
  • Four students at Timothy Christian School (which screened positive for a variant of concern).
  • Two staff members at St. Thomas More Catholic Secondary School.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bobby Hristova

Reporter/Editor

Bobby Hristova is a reporter/editor with CBC Hamilton. Email: bobby.hristova@cbc.ca

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