Hamilton families should prepare for closed schools after April break, public health says

Hamilton's medical officer of health says she'll tell the directors of local school boards this afternoon to prepare students and teachers to stay home for online learning after the spring break.

HWDSB chair will ask public health why schools are still open to in-person learning

The Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board wants Hamilton Public Health to explain why it's not shutting down in-person learning. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Hamilton's medical officer of health says she'll tell the directors of local school boards this afternoon to prepare students and teachers to stay home for online learning after the spring break. 

What this would look like and who it would involve will depend on the stay-at-home order, Dr. Elizabeth Richardson said. As community cases go up and down, school cases do too. 

She'll decide sometime next week whether to issue a section 22 order telling schools to switch to full online learning. 

"For our educators, and for our parents and families, the uncertainty about what is going on is very challenging," she said.

Thirty-two of the 120 schools in Hamilton have had at least one outbreak. Richardson said 98 of the 338 cases seen in schools are outbreak related. 

About 11 per cent of the time, a single case in a school leads to an outbreak. The transmission happens in a variety of ways, she said, but it's mostly student-to-student in elementary schools. As for high schools, "very little" transmission happens there.

Dawn Danko, chair of the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB), says she plans to write to Hamilton Public Health Services asking why it hasn't yet ordered a stop to in-person learning amid rising case counts and outbreaks.

Public health units in Peel and Toronto used section 22 of the Health Protection and Promotion Act to force schools to pivot to remote learning this week. Hamilton Public Health Services has faced scrutiny from unions for not following suit.

During an HWDSB planning committee meeting on Tuesday, trustees said Danko should write a letter asking for details as to why the health unit hasn't ordered schools to switch to remote learning. 

Students get COVID in the community, not at school

With the letter, Danko will also ask how vaccinating front-line educators plays into the decision. Niagara Health is vaccinating education workers there, Hamilton has no immediate plans to do so.

Six trustees agreed the letter should be sent, Danko told CBC News. Before she writes the letter, she said, she'll try to get consensus from trustees who were absent too.

Premier Doug Ford insisted on Tuesday that schools are safe.

"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," he said.

NDP MPP Sandy Shaw (Hamilton West—Ancaster—Dundas) sent Ford an open letter asking for stronger public health measures, and vaccinations for education workers.

143 cases in 8 days

"Hamilton schools have seen 143 new COVID-19 cases in the last eight days. The risk is higher than ever, and we need urgent action to vaccinate our teachers and education workers, and to put stronger measures in place to prevent transmission in the classroom," she wrote.

"I am urging you to listen to Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board and Hamilton Public Health Services that have both called on the province to vaccinate teachers and workers, and to put in place the measures that we know will make our schools safe."

When asked about vaccinating school staff, Ford and Health Minister Christine Elliott said Ontario will continue to prioritize vaccine rollout based on age and risk.

The province is working on plans to vaccinate special education teachers with a higher risk of coming into contact with students, Elliott said, but she didn't give details. 

"Every time you make a change to vaccinate all teachers ... that then means you're also taking supplies away for some of the seniors too, so you need to be fair," Elliott said, adding the province acknowledges most teachers can't work from home.