Don't expect to be told if there's a classroom outbreak when school returns Monday

When kids, staff, and teachers return to in-person learning on Monday, they'll do so amid increasing COVID-19 hospitalizations but without the previous protocols for reporting virus cases, declaring outbreaks, or dismissing classes if too many kids are sick.

New guidelines from the Ministry of Health say they'll no longer close classes because of COVID

In-person learning resumes on Monday in Ontario. (LM Otero/Associated Press)

When kids, staff, and teachers return to in-person learning on Monday, they'll do so amid increasing COVID-19 hospitalizations but without the previous protocols for reporting virus cases, declaring outbreaks, or dismissing classes if too many kids are sick. 

Families won't have to report positive tests and they'll no longer be told if other children in their kids' classes have tested positive for the virus. That's largely because not enough COVID-19 tests are available, according to Ministry of Health documents sent to schools. 

"Given the widespread transmission and inability to test all symptomatic individuals, schools will not be routinely notifying students/pupils in classes with a positive case, or if a child/student or staff is absent due to symptoms associated with COVID-19," the "Interim Guidance for Schools and Child Care: Omicron Surge" states. 

Any closures of classes or schools will be done because of "operation requirements," meaning if there are not enough well teachers to teach. The province closed schools for an extra two weeks after winter break partly because of concerns about lack of staffing due to Omicron cases among educators and their need to self-isolate. 

The reopening of schools on Monday is "based on some premature hopefulness," said Craig Smith, the president of the union that represents elementary teachers at the Thames Valley District School Board. "We're concerned about the pivot." 

The new protocols are in sharp contrast to the ones in place before winter break, which saw a daily reporting of the number of cases in each schools, emails sent home if there were positive cases in a classroom and classes shut down if one child was suspected of transmitting the virus to another child. 

Acting Medical Officer of Health Dr. Alex Summers and President of the Local Elementary Teacher's Federation of Ontario for Thames Valley Craig Smith give London Morning an idea of what back-to-school will look like on Monday.

Most COVID transmission happens in "unstructured and unregulated environments," not schools, said Dr. Alex Summers, the Middlesex-London Health Unit's acting medical officer of health. 

"It's a question about, what can we do to reduce the risk of COVID transmission in those environments? The key thing to note is that there's also risks for not having kids in school, and that can be exposure to COVID 19 at home or in the community during activities that sometimes replace being in school." 

'We all want to be back'

The potential for Omicron to spread quickly in schools does exist, he said, but the fact that other activities remain closed helps, he said. 

"Right now, really the only essential activity that we should be doing for kids is being in school. It means we're not doing playdates. We're not doing sleepovers. We're making sure kids with symptoms aren't going into the classroom, that masks are well-fitted and worn, that vaccination is available for as many students, teachers and staff as possible." 

Ontario schools prepare to return to class on Monday

6 months ago
Duration 9:27
Canada's largest school board, the Toronto District School Board, says there are new safety measures in place for children's return to the classroom, but the TDSB is still struggling with how to count COVID-19 case numbers and let parents know. (Frédéric Pepin/CBC/Radio-Canada)

Still, not much has changed since the province closed schools, said Smith. 

"The virtual option is not ideal for teachers, it's certainly not ideal for students and it has been challenging for parents. There's no question that we all want to be back in school," Smith said.

"But the critical question is, what has changed? From an organizational point of view in the schools, the answer is, absolutely nothing." 

The N95 masks the province has promised for educators arrived last week, a Thames Valley spokesperson said. About 80 HEPA units the province said would help filter air in classrooms without circulation are expected later this month. 

Most teachers vaccinated

"The masking will certainly assist," Smith said. "I think what we will find is that after we go back, we will be having this conversation again in a couple of weeks." 

About 97 per cent of teachers at Thames Valley are vaccinated, a rate that is among the highest in the province. However, teachers are still getting sick with the virus and others have had to call in sick to self-isolate or care for ill family members. 

"If it isn't Omicron that closes the schools, it will be absence of teachers, both in the classrooms and occasional teachers to replace them," Smith said. "That's still a big problem."

More than 90 per cent of 12 to 17 year olds have been vaccinated twice, and just over half of five to 11-year-olds have gotten at least one dose.