Hamilton school boards detail COVID-19 protocols, including opt-outs

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Published August 23, 2021 at 11:09 pm

Dawn Danko is the chair of the Hamilton-Wentworth School District Board (HWDSB). (City of Hamilton photo.)

For all of the real risk involved with sending children to school during the fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, Hamilton has not set a threshold where high case counts would trigger closures.

The chairs of both Hamilton school boards joined the medical officer of health, Dr. Elizabeth Richardson, at a briefing on Monday to detail plans to have children in school in September. Both the Catholic and public boards have dedicated funding to reducing class sizes and both will eventually install some  1,000 HEPA filters furnished by the Ontario Ministry of Education in order to improve ventilation.

Children age 5 to 11 are not eligible to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Ontario children also had fewer days in class than almost anywhere else in North America last year.

Richardson did not say there a specific case count that would lead to a school closure, replying that the approach is more comprehensive.

“I’m sure that’s a question that everybody’s thinking about as we go into this school year, what that might take,” she said. “Really, the approach that’s been taken, at least from the public health side, is looking at what is happening locally. There will be all sorts of factors taken into consideration — whether it’s about vaccination rates in the schools, or ventilation issues that might have been identified but maybe have not been further addressed, whatever it may be. We’ll look at everything that’s specific to what’s going on in a particular environment. We’ll be monitoring that with our school board partners and doing whatever it might take.

“Our absolute hope is that this does not ever to happen again. If it does, we might look at transient dismissal of a cohort, or short-term closure, as we’ve done in the past. We’re really hoping anything widespread isn’t necessary.”

Hamilton-Wentworth District Catholic School Board (HWCDSB) chair Patrick Daly noted that the interrupted 2020-21 school year came before COVID-19 vaccines were readily available.

The Delta variant, which is more transmissible, began to appear in Canada in June.

“We’ve taken significant amounts of funding to lower class sizes — about $2.5 mllion,” he said. “All of the measures from last year will be repeated, and significant measures have been taken to improve ventilation. Those, along with vaccinations, weren’t in place a year ago.

“Really, the level of transmission in schools (in 2021-21), I don’t want to say it wasn’t significant, but in terms of community transmission, it was not nearly as significant. I think parents can be relatively assured that their children will be safe.”

Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) chair Dawn Danko said the vaccine disclosure policy for all education workers, bus drivers and in-school volunteers should help. The chairs indicated that they were told by Education Minister Stephen Lecce on Monday that any staff who are not vaccinated will be tested at least twice a week.

“We’ve always talked about having multiple layers of protection to make our schools as safe as possible,” Danko said. “I think one thing that can be reassuring to the parents of students (born in 2010 or more recently) who are not yet eligible to be vaccinated is the plan to have staff disclosure of vaccinations, or they will have to engage in regular rapid testing. I think that is a layer of protection that will help keep it out of our schools.”

Between Sept. 3 and 10, families of elementary students can also visit the HWDSB website to change their registration to remote learning. It’s expected they would be accommodated by early October. Secondary students in HWDSB would be expected to pursue the matter through their school’s guidance office.

The briefing, coincidentally, occurred just hours after the Ontario Science Table, which advises Premier Doug Ford on the province’s reopening, lost a key member. Dr. David Fisman, an epidemiologist who is a University of Toronto professor, said he resigned because the table was facing political interference.

Meantime, Richardson did note that the Hamilton Public Health Services and the boards’ plan asks parents and children to balance risk. That would seem especially pertinent in Hamilton, which has the second-highest COVID-19 positivity rate in Ontario while having the fifth-lowest percentage of the eligible population who are double-vaxxed.

Generally, there is consensus among education experts that missed school days create risk for the mental health of children and their families.

“The three of us, you’ve heard very much the pieces that are in place now as we figure out how we’re going to live with COVID-19 this coming fall,” Richardson said. “As in any part of life, we’re figuring out how to balance risks — no part of life is fully risk-free. In the case of COVID-19, what we’re trying to do is figure out how to make school as safe as possible for students, for teachers, for anybody involved in our school community.”

Danko said that HWDSB has taken $6 million from cash reserves to fund smaller class sizes.

Elementary school students will remain in one cohort for the entire day of classroom instruction but will be allowed to mix outdoors during recesses. Secondary school pupils will take two courses at a time in a ‘quadmester’ format.

The HWDSB had a meeting on Monday night where it was learned that it should soon receive its full allocation of HEPA filters, but it expects to have all 1,000 installed in time for the first day of school on Sept. 8. Daly said the Catholic board has already installed over 1,000 of the filters.

The public board also heard that vaccination numbers among staff will be made publicly available on Sept. 15, although they will be shown at the board level, rather than school by school.

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