HWDSB has been planning for potential pivot to full online learning during COVID-19

Hamilton's public school board isn't expecting any immediate school closures during the COVID-19 pandemic, but over the last three weeks, it's been planning how to respond if schools or the entire board need to move to fully online learning.

3 more students at HWDSB and 1 staff member at HWCDSB have been diagnosed COVID-19

In mid-October, Ontario's Ministry of Education asked school boards to begin preparing in case they had to have schools or the entire system switch to full online learning. (François Gagnon/Radio-Canada)

Hamilton's public school board isn't expecting any immediate school closures during the COVID-19 pandemic, but over the past month, it's been planning how to respond if a school or the entire board need to move to fully online learning.

Shawn McKillop, Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board's spokesperson, said in an email on Monday morning that HWDSB has been following a memo from the province since Oct. 14.

Manny Figueiredo, the board's director, said the process has a few steps:

  • Having online platforms in place for students. 
  • Taking stock of how many in-person staff are working. 
  • Ensuring students can use the online systems.
  • Determining how ready families would be to make a switch to online learning.

"We know our 9,000 kids in elementary [remote learning] are ready. They're living it already every day. All our secondary students, they do remote every day. Not all their classes, but they're ready," he said in an interview Tuesday morning.

The board sent a questionnaire Friday to families whose elementary students are attending in-person classes, he said. That memo asked families if they have adequate technology and Internet.

While it was not a normal call out, it wasn't sent out of an urgent fear that schools will close, he said. And it wasn't a signal to parents that they need to stock up. It was a measure to update the same information they collected back in March, he said.

"What we didn't want is to think that data is still relevant today because people's situations can change," Figueiredo said. "With COVID and the pandemic, the financial situations could change for families."

"We've never had to close a school. We've had to close classrooms for 14 days and sure enough, we can pivot."

The board handed out some 6,000 devices to students in April and has a procedure in place for handing out more if needed. It will share the results of the new survey, which families can fill out until midnight on Wednesday, at the next COVID-19 update to board trustees.

While HWDSB has its online platforms in place, it has been wrestling with technical issues since the summer.

The Parent Portal provoked the ire of parents, while its Microsoft Teams and The Hub systems embarrassed some trans students.

Figueiredo said despite the various issues, the board is refining its systems and doesn't plan on discontinuing them anytime soon.

More than 100 COVID-19 cases in schools since pandemic started

Figueiredo said the public board has encountered roughly 55 infected students and staff members as of Tuesday morning.

The latest COVID-19 infections late Monday saw one new student case each at Sir Allan MacNab Secondary School, Queensdale Elementary School and Ridgemount Elementary School.

The Sir Allan MacNab student wasn't in the building while infectious and posed no risk to the community, but any students and staff at Queensdale and Ridgemount who may have been exposed need to self-isolate for 14 days.

The Catholic board, meanwhile, has seen 48 cases as of Tuesday at noon.

A staff member at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Elementary School tested positive on Monday. That person was last in the building on Friday.

Local schools are not spreading COVID-19

Despite new cases, schools have not led to mass outbreaks or spread of the virus.

"It's not the schools where we're seeing the issues right now. It is the things we choose to do in our private lives, and that's where we need to have most of the emphasis," Dr. Elizabeth Richardson, Hamilton's medical officer of health, told CBC News at the end of September.

"In terms of schools and keeping them open, at this point here in Hamilton, we've seen a lot of really good work done by all the schools. They've paid a lot of attention. They're moving forward. They're figuring out how to deal with the tricky issue of kids getting these mild illnesses, and what is COVID and what is not."

Figueiredo credits families self-screening each day and Hamilton's 23 public health nurses dedicated to schools.

"Parents are always going to be worried. As a parent … the safety of my children is the priority. But I think we need to reassure parents this is a plan we had to prepare for, and it's not just for system-wide closure. It's to make sure that if there's a school that's closing ... we want to be ready for that as well."


Bobby Hristova


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


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