Parents and teachers union react to COVID-19 school outbreak plan

The province has released its plan for how it will respond to a potential outbreak, which describes scenarios in which select students will be sent home and entire schools shut down as a result a positive case.

Teachers federation says parts of the outbreak plan look "excellent on paper" but difficult to implement

Between school boards, teachers, and parents, the reaction to the provincial COVID-19 school outbreak plan is a mixed bag. Some parents and teachers in Windsor say there are still gaps to be filled in the plan, especially as the new academic year inches closer. (Caitlin Taylor/CBC)

One of the biggest questions about back-to-school this fall is: What happens if a student tests positive for COVID-19?

On Wednesday, the province released its plan for how it will respond to a potential outbreaks in schools, which describes scenarios in which students will be sent home and under what circumstances entire schools could be shut down as a result of positive cases.

During the daily COVID-19 briefing from the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit on Wednesday, medical officer of health Dr. Wajid Ahmed said the health unit is working with local school boards to provide the best guidance possible. 

"None of these plans are ...100 per cent safe, there's always certain level of risk attached to it and again, everyone's risk tolerance is different, everyone's needs are different," he said. 

Dr. Wajid Ahmed says conversations with school boards are happening regularly, and that the health unit is working to support schools as the new academic year approaches. (Chris Ensing/CBC)

"I think we'll have to look at our local situation and how we can do locally to support our school boards and to provide them with the right guidance." 

He added that conversations with school boards are happening regularly. 

Here are some key points of the province's outbreak plan: 

  • The school will let parents know if there is a positive case at their child's school.
  • Contact tracing will start as soon as a case is identified.
  • If a child or teacher tests positive, they should stay away from school and isolate for 14 days.
  • Cohorts with positive student or teacher considered at high risk will also be told to isolate. 
  • If a parent tests positive it is highly recommended, but not required, that they tell the school and keep their children home in isolation for 14 days. 
  • If a child becomes ill at school, they'll be put in a separate room and staff helping the child will wear PPE and parents will be called to pick up the child. A COVID-19 test may be recommended but not required. 
  • A school outbreak is defined as at least two cases that have a link and one of these people could have become infected at school.

The province also said an entire school may also be shut down if the local public health unit finds evidence of "potential widespread transmission," such as a number of positive cases with no known source outside the school.

That determination will be at the discretion of local authorities, and not dependent on a particular case count or statistical threshold.

Parents react to outbreak plan

Jane McArthur said she's not sure she made the right decision to send her children back for in-class learning, and the outbreak plan didn't really make her feel any better about that choice. 

"I think from a broad public health perspective, very rigorous testing and tracing strategy is important for tracking a virus such as COVID-19," she said. "I hate to look backwards and be negative but this is something we needed to have in place early on." 

McArthur added she's also a fan of teachers staying within their bubble of students and paying attention to hand washing, she said.

Jane McArthur says the outbreak plan didn't ease her mind about her decision to send her children back to school this fall. (Tahmina Aziz/CBC)

"There are some good things but it doesn't go far enough based on the what the newest evidence about how the virus is transmitted," McArthur said. 

Sheena McKay, a mother of three, said she's relieved to hear that testing isn't mandatory because she didn't want to put her kids through the trauma of frequent testing, though she understands how that could be concerning to school staff. 

"My heart goes out to the teachers and the staff that are on the front lines right now," she said. "They are there day in and day out, we can pull our kids when we are worried, they are expected to be in school.

"I can understand the concern on their part and why there may be a backlash in choosing not to cause tests to be mandatory," McKay said. 

Sheena McKay, mother of three, says she's relieved that COVID-19 testing isn't mandatory, because she didn't want to see kids going through the trauma of frequent testing. But, she says she understands how the absence of testing can be concerning to school staff.  (Tahmina Aziz/CBC)

But McKay said if needed, she would get her kids tested and hopes other parents feel the same way. She added that she'll continue to watch case numbers closely to decide if her kids will remain in class. 

Teachers are overwhelmed, says union

While parents try to understand the outbreak plan, principals and teachers are scrambling to implement it before opening their doors to students in just two weeks. 

"Teachers have to now learn about this and implement it, and at the same time, we still don't have our class list, " said Mario Spagnuolo, local president of the Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO).

"There's a lot of unknowns, and unfortunately, it's because we haven't received the information from the top, from the Ministry of Education in a timely fashion,"

Mario Spagnuolo says the school year could stand to have a delayed start, as teachers and school work to implement the latest pandemic protocol from the government. (Jason Viau/CBC)

He said the late information from the government is grounds for the school year to be delayed, adding that it's not realistic for teachers to start the year without all the necessary resources.

Spagnuolo added while the plan is "very detailed" and parts of it looks "excellent on paper" there are still a number of concerns for teachers, outside of just the fast approaching school year.

He said the lack of medical support within schools, cohort sizes, coupled with absence of mandatory testing are some areas that need to be looked at further. 

"I think parents, and teachers, and students would feel more at ease knowing that when someone's coming back that they have been cleared and there was proof of that," he said.

Public board ready for school year to start

Sharon Pyke, superintendent of education for the Greater Essex County District School Board, says the lack of mandatory COVID-19 testing for students showing symptoms is not an education decision, but a medical one.

She said instead, it's mandatory for students, parents and volunteers at the board to self assess for symptoms daily, and it is recommended they seek care from a primary health care providers if symptoms do arise.

Sharon Pyke, a superintendent with the Greater Essex County District School Board, says it is mandatory for students, parents, and school staff to self assess for COVID-19 symptoms daily. (Katerina Georgieva/CBC)

"Before students, volunteers or any staff to come to school, they are to self assess themselves to ensure that they're not having any signs or symptoms of the COVID-19. It is mandatory that they take self-assessment each day," she said.

When it comes to preparedness, Pyke said the provincial plan only provides further guidance to an outbreak plan already drafted by the board, complete with scenarios and protocol if a member of the school board were to test positive or COVID-19.

"The timing of the document that's presented from the ministry is a couple of weeks before school begins. However, we were given some guidance a while ago in terms of thinking about our offering ... and so the timing of it is timely for us in order to compare, to ensure that we've covered all the components," she said.


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