Toronto

Itinerant school teachers creating unnecessary COVID-19 risks, experts warn

Experts in infection control and public health say that stopping itinerant teachers from travelling between multiple locations represents one of the surest ways to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in Ontario schools.

TCDSB closed a school this week after itinerant music teacher contracted COVID-19

Music classes are frequently taught by itinerant teachers, a practice that has continued at some boards despite the implementation of other safety measures aimed to prevent the spread of COVID-19. (Shutterstock)

Experts in infection control and public health say that stopping itinerant teachers from travelling between multiple locations represents one of the surest ways to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in Ontario schools.

Concerns around the ongoing use of itinerant teachers emerged this week after the Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB) confirmed on Sunday evening that a staff member assigned to five schools tested positive for COVID-19, prompting the board to close one of the schools until Oct. 9.

The employee is an itinerant music teacher, according to TCDSB trustees.

"It seems to me like an obvious thing to fix," said Ashleigh Tuite, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the University of Toronto's Dalla Lana School of Public Health.

"If you have an infection in somebody who's moving from class to class or from school to school … they can basically seed infection into all of these different settings."

There have been 539 cases of COVID-19 connected to Ontario schools since in-person learning resumed in September. Three schools have been ordered closed so far.

The TCDSB and other Ontario school boards continue to rely on itinerant, or travelling teachers to teach a variety of subjects, including music, physical education and French.

Infectious disease epidemiologist Ashleigh Tuite says using itinerant teachers at multiple schools will make it difficult to perform contact tracing in the event of an outbreak. (Nick Iwanyshyn/University of Toronto)

TCDSB trustee Markus de Domenico said some itinerant teachers at his board are assigned to as many as 10 schools at a time, creating an elevated risk of exposure for those teachers and the students they are assigned to instruct.

"I think it puts a very fine point on it," de Domenico said of the case that closed down St. Charles Catholic School this week.

"It highlights the issue and the problem very clearly."

System puts teachers 'at significant risk'

Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist at the University of Toronto, said the experience in hospitals and long-term care homes earlier in the pandemic shows the importance of limiting the number of locations where people work.

"We know what happens when you let people move between institutions; we know what happens when you don't," Furness told CBC Toronto.

The movement of personal support workers between multiple long-term care facilities was identified as a major risk during the peak of the long-term care crisis this spring.

While Furness noted that children are far less likely than seniors to experience serious health issues related to the novel coronavirus, he said many teachers do not enjoy the same level of protection.

"It's the itinerant teachers themselves who are actually at significant risk," he said.

At the Toronto District School Board, itinerant English as a Second Language teachers are limited to visiting one school per day, while itinerant music teachers are assigned to a single school and teach other classes virtually.

Minister of Education Stephen Lecce says provincial health officials have not recommended that the use of itinerant teachers be suspended. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

'This could have been avoided'

In a statement to CBC Toronto, the Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Association (OECTA) said that limiting the number of contacts is a top priority for the union, and it said the provincial government was unwilling to engage with teachers' unions on solutions that could protect itinerant teachers and students.

"With the resurgence of COVID-19 in our communities, it is imperative that the government finally step up and work with us to make our schools as safe as possible, before it is too late," said OECTA president Liz Stuart.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce said during a Monday news conference that negotiated standards that provide teachers with a set amount of preparation time each week complicated those efforts.

He suggested that if unions had been more flexible with that system, the schedules for specialized itinerant teachers could have been arranged to limit their need to travel between schools.

"This could have been avoided," Lecce said. "And so we're now working with our teacher unions …  to find a resolution and I hope we can do that."

Tuite said improvements should be made before school outbreaks start to happen.

"You don't need to run this out," she said.

"You don't need to let teachers get infected." 

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