Province Gambling on Health of Schools

by Markus O’Brien Fehr, Chief of Staff

“See you in a month, I guess,” I said to the staff at our local school dropping my boys off this morning. Having heard the news about a third-wave lockdown in Ontario starting this weekend, I assumed like many, that meant another month of homeschooling.

“Nope, we’re going to be here,” said the staff, already up to speed that the lockdown isn’t going to affect schools.

After confirming that this wasn’t an April Fools gag I started wondering, for the first time since the pandemic began, whether we were making the right decision trusting our kid’s health – and possibly our own – to the Ontario school system.

I’m a big believer that our schools should be the last public place that is closed in a lockdown, and the first public place that will re-open. It has been very well documented how important the social aspects of school are for both the mental and physical health of our kids.

But as a parent, the case numbers we’re looking at are getting downright scary. ICUs in hospitals have reached their largest number of patients since the onset of the pandemic 13 months ago. But unlike the early outbreaks, the age profile of ICU patients is shifting away from seniors and toward people in their 40s and 50s. The new variants of COVID-19 are being blamed for hitting people a lot harder, even in younger age groups.

That should ring alarm bells when we’re talking about local schools. The number of active cases associated with publicly funded schools in Ontario was 230 when classrooms re-opened in Toronto on February 16. Since then, cases have spiked to 2,381. 63 schools are now closed in the Province as a result.

Even if children remain in a lower risk group (though the jury on the variant data is still out) and less likely to pass on COVID-19 to family, for their teachers, this still should be a huge issue. 406 school staff have recently been confirmed with COVID-19. Many of these presumably in that new high-risk 40-50 year old age range.

Keep in mind, teachers need to have much more physical interaction with kids than would be true in many other job settings. When a young child scrapes their knee, someone needs to get up close and personal to deal with it.

School administrators are already having an impossible time finding substitute staff for sick days. Actions taken today will take 2-3 weeks to slow quickly growing case numbers. How much worse will this situation get before dramatic action gets taken?

Like many parents, I dread being back in a “home school” environment. Some families have made it work all year long. For others, home school just doesn’t work compatibly with job requirements.

But standing on the verge of another ICU crisis, we can’t risk the lives of our kids, or their teachers, no matter how vitally important those physical classrooms are.

As we enter the month of April, vaccine clinics are already well into vaccinating cohorts, age 60+, that were intended to be in Ontario’s phase 2 of vaccine roll-out. Teachers and other workers that can’t work from home, are supposed to be part of this phase as well.

Let’s take advantage of our Easter Break and delayed Spring Break and rely on online learning for the rest of April. This will give teachers a fighting chance to receive the first dose of vaccine, and curb the growing case counts in our schools. We can then finish the school year on a safe note, with far more confidence that by September, we should close to getting things back to normal.