Kitchener-Waterloo

Amid worry over rising infection rates, Ontario Education Minister says schools remain safe

With COVID-19 cases rising and Ontario being hit with what seems to be a worsening fourth wave, Education Minister Stephen Lecce assures parents that schools are safe.

Approximately 30% of Ontario schools still without mechanical ventilation

Education Minister Stephen Lecce is assuring parents that schools are safe. (Rene Johnston/The Canadian Press)

With COVID-19 cases rising and Ontario being hit with what seems to be a worsening fourth wave, Education Minister Stephen Lecce is assuring parents that schools are safe.

Lecce's assurance comes as nearly two million students return to classrooms for the first time in five months.

"It's early days, but I think what we've seen through our ... overnight and day camps, our child-care settings, summer school, we've really seen our schools and congregate settings remain as safe as possible, which is really important," Lecce told CBC K-W's The Morning Edition.

"The feedback from parents and from staff is positive, it's a better or positive, optimistic tone. I mean, when you've got 75 per cent plus of the 12 to 17 age bracket vaccinated, you've got, you know, over 82 per cent of the general population, the parents and staff vaccinated — that's a game changer."

Lecce said a lot of parents are also very happy to see that the air ventilation in schools has been stepped up in a big way.

"In Waterloo, there's over a thousand HEPA [High Efficiency Particulate Air] units within classrooms and learning spaces this September, and that's a physical thing you can touch," he said. 

"That's going to help improve the air quality, which the emerging science has been clear [on], especially with delta." 

However, a parent who reached out to CBC K-W on Twitter said that there's still no HVAC system or air conditioning in their child's elementary school. The parent said the windows do open, but their son came home complaining about his room filling up with wasps because the windows have no screens.

25% to 30% of schools without mechanical ventilation

Lecce said about 25 to 30 per cent of schools in Ontario are without mechanical ventilation. 

But he said the ministry has been following the advice of the Ontario Science Table to put standalone HEPA units within those spaces.

"When a school does not have mechanical ventilation, in any school in Ontario, I've set a standard, every single learning space — the science lab, the gym, the library, the classroom — has standalone HEPA units that are fitted for the space using the best modern filtration systems to improve the air quality," Lecce said. 

He said the second, medium-term objective, some of which have already been completed, are structural overhauls of heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems, or putting in place new HVAC systems and air conditioning within schools.

Avoiding mass school closures

The province released a guide back in August outlining steps for a safe return to school. However, the 29-page document contains no protocols on managing COVID-19 outbreaks, nor does it set a threshold for when schools or classrooms should be shut down.

Lecce said the intention and policy of the government is to avoid mass school closures this year. 

But he said localized medical officers of health can make determinations where there's evidence of COVID-19 transmission in schools. 

"The fact that we have the take-home test for asymptomatic high school students, for example, and their staff, is intended to reduce absenteeism, to keep the classes open," Lecce said.

"We are taking a much more targeted approach when an individual has symptoms, [for] close contacts to be tested and potentially for isolation. So, the intent this year is really to cast our focus on those symptomatic individuals, high-contact individuals and keep the schools open as much as possible."

More than 4,800 Ontario schools had to close due to COVID-19 cases at one point from September to June, with 11,462 students contracting the virus, provincial data shows. 

Listen to the full interview with Minister Stephen Lecce:

Many kids in Ontario are heading back to the classroom for the first time in month. There is a lot of worry and uncertainty around the upcoming year. Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce talks to the Morning Edition about the province's plan to keep schools open. 8:25

With files from Shanifa Nasser, Yasmine Ghania

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