Send students back to class full time this fall, OPH says

Ottawa's medical officer of health, Dr. Vera Etches, is recommending that students return to school full time in September.

Would balance infection risk with 'observed harms' to children and youth: Etches

Dr. Vera Etches, seen here in March, told a meeting of the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board Thursday night that sending students back to school would balance the risks from COVID-19 and the 'observed harms' children are already experiencing. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Ottawa's medical officer of health says students should return to school full time in September in order to protect the mental health of students and their parents.

Dr. Vera Etches made the recommendation at a special meeting of the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board (OCDSB) Thursday evening, which was convened to discuss options for a return to school.

"I'm recommending that we prioritize and plan to have students in class five days a week, and that we work from there to make sure we make that as safe as possible," Etches said.

"This would balance the risk of COVID infection … with the observed harms to children and youth and families that we're seeing."

Etches said research by Ottawa Public Health (OPH) has revealed the devastating impact that measures taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19 have taken on the mental health of students, parents and families. 

She cited an OPH study from early in the pandemic where half of parents reported experiencing poor mental health, up from only nine per cent before the pandemic.

"I highly doubt that people can manage to do what they did in March and April again," said Etches, referring to the period of the pandemic when public health measures were strongest and many working parents were at home as their children attempted to learn online.

While the format for a return to school is not up to Ottawa Public Health (OPH), Etches said she is seeking to influence the provincial government as it develops guidelines for school boards and would assist in the development of protocols to keep students safe.

3 possible back-to-school scenarios

All elementary and secondary schools in the province closed on March 13 and haven't opened since.

Ontario's Ministry of Education has asked school boards to develop three separate plans for a return in the coming school year.

Boards were tasked with creating a plan for regular class instruction five days a week with heightened health protocols, a plan for at-home virtual learning only and a hybrid model that would see groups of students attending schools on alternate days or weeks.

Under the hybrid model, class sizes would be limited to 15 students and students would be organized into "cohorts" so they only interact with classmates and one teacher.

The province has said it will decide which model to go ahead with in early August, but the prospect of homeschooling has many parents worried.

Over 30 OCDSB parents attended Thursday's meeting, the vast majority of whom lobbied the board to push the province for a return to full-time school.

"I watched my 11-year-old son go from a happy, healthy, well-adjusted fifth grader to nervous and anxious," said Holly Grenier.

"As an only child, all of his social interaction immediately ended, and the impact was instant and undeniable."

Ariel Troster, the parent of an eight-year-old student at Lady Evelyn Alternative School, said keeping kids home for part of the week would force parents to choose between their careers and their children's education.

"Many parents — mostly women, let's be honest — will not be able to work," said Troster. "Some single parents will need to leave the workforce or patch together alternate, unregulated childcare."

Low number of confirmed COVID-19 cases among children in Ottawa

Etches acknowledged that returning to a full schedule may require relaxing physical distancing rules within schools. 

"I've come to understand that you cannot run a school with two-metre physical distancing," said Etches. "We have to look at reasonableness and feasibility around infection control." 

While there is limited scientific research into the true impact of COVID-19 in school settings, Etches said, data from Ottawa shows people under 20 make up a small percentage of people who have tested positive for COVID-19.

Out of 2,036 cases in Ottawa, there have been 70 confirmed cases among children between the ages of 10 and 19, and 33 cases among younger children between the ages of 0 and 9. There have been no hospitalizations of children or youth, Etches said.

"It seems that children have played less of a role in transmission of the virus, possibly because they tend to have less symptoms," said Etches. "But there is a lot of uncertainty about this."

The OCDSB meeting adjourned before trustees voted on a final motion directing staff to develop plans for the three scenarios outlined by the province and finalize the school calendar. 

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