Move to remote learning expected to prevent 637 COVID-19 cases in Hamilton, data indicates

Moving from in-person to remote learning is expected to prevent 637 COVD-19 infections in the city, according to Hamilton Public Health data.

7 union leaders sent a letter to public health and said in an interview it has failed schools

Unions representing Hamilton education staff say public health should do more to protect workers and students. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Hamilton Public Health data indicates moving from in-person to remote learning is expected to prevent 637 COVD-19 infections in the city.

Dr. Dominik Mertz, Hamilton Health Sciences medical director of infection prevention control, shared the data during a hospital town hall on Thursday.

The projections show Hamilton's third wave, with the stay-at-home order, will lead to a total of roughly 13,364 cases. With those measures plus the pivot to remote learning, that number is predicted to be 12,727.

"I think you can make up your own mind whether this justifies keeping schools closed until end of June or not," said Mertz.

Public health didn't immediately comment on the figures.

But Dr. Elizabeth Richardson, the city's medical officer of health, said in an email on Friday that there's been "low transmission in schools, where child-to-staff and child-to-child transmissions remain rare, and the majority of COVID-19 in schools originates with community exposures."

Dr. Dominik Mertz, HHS medical director of infection prevention control, shared data that indicates closing in-person classes would prevent hundreds of COVID-19 cases. (Hamilton Health Sciences)

The director of Hamilton's public school board and the chair of the Catholic school board said they hadn't seen the figures before.

Manny Figueiredo, director of the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB), called the figures concerning, and said based on that, closing schools would be the right decision.

He added he wished the decision to close schools had come earlier.

Pat Daly, the Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic District School Board (HWCDSB) chair, didn't comment on the numbers, but said the board will follow public health advice.

Unions say public health is failing schools

Education unions said these figures show schools aren't safe and should stay closed.

"There was not enough done to make schools safe other than claiming that they were safe," said Jeff Sorensen, president of the Hamilton-Wentworth Elementary Teachers' Local union.

Samantha Wilson, the local Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation (OSSTF) president of office, clerical and technical staff, said the numbers are "alarming" and show education workers should get vaccines immediately.

On Thursday, seven of those union leaders sent a letter to Richardson urging her to keep classes closed until all education workers are vaccinated.

"Keeping schools open for in-person learning while infection rates are spiralling out of control puts those staff and students ... at greater risk of exposure and infection, and unnecessarily jeopardizes their health and safety," reads the letter.

"In other jurisdictions, local medical officers of health have taken steps to protect school communities and the broader public. We are asking you to do the same."

The concerns go beyond keeping schools closed.

In an interview on Monday, five of the seven union leaders who sent the letter said public health hasn't responded to their inquiries and doesn't understand how schools operate.

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Union leaders representing public school workers added they've been told local public health will "never" impose a Section 22 of the Health Protection and Promotion Act to force schools to pivot to remote learning, unlike Peel Region and Toronto.

All this comes at a time when Hamilton and its schools are seeing the highest number of COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began.

Richardson, in an emailed statement also sent to the unions, said she appreciated the concerns raised.

She added nurses are available to work with school administrators to provide more help.

Dr. Elizabeth Richardson, Hamilton's medical officer of health, says schools have worked hard to keep students and staff safe. (CBC)

Richardson previously said she would recommend schools stay closed after the spring break, but also emphasized how the choice to shut schools isn't just about the number of cases.

"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," she previously said.

Education workers don't feel protected

Larry Tarnowski, a special education worker at Orchard Park Secondary School, said he is strongly considering refusing to work because he doesn't feel safe.

He said his students don't understand how to physically distance, some don't wear masks, and some have behavioural issues that put others at risk. He also said his classroom doesn't have adequate air flow, with windows that barely open and ventilation filters that are duct-taped together.

Unions representing Hamilton school staff say there are gaps in the measures aimed at protecting workers and students. (Bobby Hristova/CBC)

Tarnowski said daily enhanced cleaning isn't taking place, with spilled yogurt sitting on a desk for days. He also said his class has had empty soap and paper towel dispensers.

"This is all within the last month give or take," he said on Tuesday.

He said some students can't verbalize, which makes communicating symptoms harder for them, and could create a greater risk of causing an outbreak.

The HWDSB hasn't responded to these concerns specifically, but said in an email on Friday the province expects school boards to offer in-person learning to those whose needs can't be met remotely. It added it would continue to reinforce public health measures set by the Ontario Ministry of Education.

Most Hamilton students will be doing remote learning, but unions say more could be going virtual. (Shutterstock)

But union leaders representing HWDSB staff said the board is allowing more students in school than necessary.

"We want students with pervasive needs in the school, if they need to be there, but some of them can be remote; they can do it," said Susan Lucek, president of Canadian Office and Professional Employees Union (COPE) Local 527, which mainly represents educational assistants.

She noted many special education staff have to wait until May to get their first vaccination, and August to get the second. She also added that only full-time permanent special education staff received a letter for vaccination.

Local school boards have called for education workers to be vaccinated immediately, including Niagara Region, which did prioritize school staff.

Other education workers should get priority: unions

Nick de Koning, the local Ontario English Catholic Teacher's Association (OECTA) president, said HWCDSB elementary school classes have special education students mixed in with others, which means special education teachers aren't the only staff in close contact with them — yet they are the only ones getting priority.

"Often times the first person to deal with a crisis in a student is the educational worker, and the second person ... is the teacher, and then you would call the special education teacher," he said.

Wilson said principals and vice-principals can get vaccinated, but the secretaries who work in the same office can't.

"I've been sending communications weekly to Dr. Richardson, I think we're at at least seven or eight weeks in a row now, and we've received a one line response that said 'I'm looping in so and so to help you,' and we've yet to even hear from so and so," said Wilson.

"[She's] failing us, absolutely."


Bobby Hristova


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