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London-area schools pass early COVID tests with flying colours

Posted: December 6, 2020

(December 5, 2020)

By: Heather Rivers, Grande Prairie Daily Herald Tribune

Madame Trinka Psellas instructs her grade one students to put up their airplane wings to ensure they are socially distanced while lining up to enter Louise Arbour French Immersion Public School after morning recess in London, Ont. on Thursday December 3, 2020. (Derek Ruttan/The London Free Press)

The London area’s major school boards might get decent grades for COVID control on a first-term report card, with only a fraction of their 214 schools reporting cases and none closed by the virus so far. But with coronavirus cases mounting in communities and schools elsewhere in Ontario amid the pandemic’s second wave, some observers see red flags ahead. Heather Rivers reports.

Little kids in masks.

Not enough room to safely spread out on buses.

Teachers fretting about their safety.

Stressed-out parents at their wits’ end, dealing with kids stuck learning online at home.

The worries were huge, but everyone knew that learning to live with a plague couldn’t truly begin in Ontario until its nearly two million schoolkids got back into some kind of routine, even if it meant many would have to divide their time between learning online and actually going to school.

Three months later, the head of the London area’s public school board — one of Ontario’s largest — boldly calls its schools “the safest place to be” for kids amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Some may quibble with that, but the London area’s major school systems have so far avoided the kind of coronavirus disasters that have shut down some schools in Canada, including in parts of Ontario.

THE BIG PICTURE

Between them, the London area’s public and Catholic boards have about 100,000 students and 214 schools. That’s a fraction of Ontario’s nearly 5,000 schools, but the two boards cover a three-county area that runs the gamut from big-city London to small towns and rural areas. If the virus was going to be real trouble in the classroom, there’s no shortage of areas where that might have happened.

St. Thomas Aquinas students leave after their day at school in London, Ont. Photograph taken on Wednesday December 2, 2020. (Mike Hensen/The London Free Press)

THE NUMBERS

So far, no school in either board has closed due to the virus and only a fraction of their schools have had positive COVID-19 cases. In the Thames Valley system, coronavirus has surfaced in at least 26 of 161 schools, or about 16 per cent, so far. That compares to at least 10 of 53 schools, or nearly 19 per cent, in the Catholic system.

Elsewhere in Ontario, the virus has reportedly been detected in about one-third of Hamilton schools so far, with problem areas such as the Greater Toronto Area and Ottawa leading the province in daily case counts in schools. Provincewide, as of this week, five schools remained closed and more than 750 — roughly one in six — had at least one reported case of COVID-19.

THE VIEW FROM THE TOP

Thames Valley schools “are the safest place to be for students,” Mark Fisher, the board’s education director, maintains. And the London region’s top public health doctor doesn’t take issue with that.

“I certainly would agree,” said Chris Mackie of the Middlesex-London Health Unit.

While London area’s two largest school boards so far have seen only two cases of COVID-19 transmission from person to person in schools, more than 40 students or staff have acquired the virus under other circumstances, including while learning at home, Mackie said.

“Schools do appear to be the safe place to be in this region,” he said.

“(But) that is certainly not the case across the province. There are, I believe, over 230 outbreaks in schools in the Toronto area alone. An outbreak being defined as transmission within a school. We’re just not seeing that here.”

It all comes down to how the virus spreads, Mackie said: “In general, schools do have an advantage, that it seems young people are less likely to transmit the virus.”

Mark Fisher, Director of Education and CEO of Thames Valley District School Board sits at a classroom desk at Eagle Heights public school. (Derek Ruttan/The London Free Press)

NOT SO FAST: ANOTHER VIEW

While Mackie and Fisher tout school safety, at least in this region, not everyone is on board with the idea that schools are relatively safe from COVID-19.

Ryan Imgrund, a York Region biostatistician and high school science teacher who’s been running COVID risk assessments across Ontario, stands firm in his view that “schools are not an indicator of community transmission (of COVID-19), but are . . . driving transmission.”

He points to last month’s nasty outbreak at Windsor’s Frank W. Begley elementary school, which remains closed after several dozen pupils and staff were infected. At the time, Windsor was not considered a hot spot for virus spread.

“Whether it be at Begley in Windsor, where they had very few community cases and they found a boatload of cases (in school), or . . . Toronto, where cases were high and they found an even higher number of school cases, schools are definitely driving transmission.” Imgrund argues.

SCHOOL OUTBREAKS: THE LOWDOWN

Nine months into the pandemic, grim headlines have taught us all a thing or two about outbreaks:

  • In long-term care homes, which have accounted for most of Ontario’s COVID-19 deaths, an outbreak is declared if one positive case is detected.
  • In hospitals like London Health Sciences Centre’s University campus, site of a deadly outbreak, it’s if two or more people are found with COVID-19 possibly acquired in the same unit.
  • In schools, it’s if there are two or more linked cases within 14 days, where at least one person could reasonably have been infected at school.

So far, the two major London-area boards have had one outbreak each: The Thames Valley board’s came this fall at London’s Sir Arthur Currie elementary school; the Catholic board’s this week, with two linked cases in pupils at London’s St. Marguerite d’Youville elementary.

CASE COUNTS: THE RAW NUMBERS

So far, there have been 39 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among staff and students at 26 Thames Valley schools, nothing like the numbers that have hit some boards in Ontario — or Alberta, where the virus is now such a problem, all high schools have been shut down.

As of Friday, there were nine active cases.

“Statistically, students are more likely to contract COVID-19 in their homes or outside of schools than in schools,” Fisher recently told his board’s trustees.

While COVID-19 transmission rates in the community are clearly a factor, the board credits its success so far to massive summer back-to-school effort to prepare schools and train staff to face the pandemic.

“We have 161 schools, (more than) 70,000 students and 10,000 staff and only one transmission,” Fisher said, referring to the lone outbreak. “This is better than our best-case scenario.”

At the Catholic board, they’ve seen 21 confirmed cases at 10 schools, including the lone outbreak.

“The bad news is, it was an outbreak,” said education director Linda Staudt. “The good news is, it was only two students in the same class and that class was already self-isolating at home.”

THE PRECAUTIONS

For all the worry and planning before the school year’s delayed start in September, including whether young children would wear masks, school safeguards are working, Fisher said.

“The kids are wearing masks, washing their hands, our staff are ensuring physical distancing is being followed — we are and have been following all those health and safety protocols,” he said, insisting that sticking to the rules has been “the key to the fact we have only had one transmission.”

THE OUTLOOK: REASON FOR WORRY

In the big picture, COVID numbers for Ontario schools — the nation’s largest school system — don’t look bad at all. According to the Education Ministry, about one one-hundredth of a per cent of students and staff have an active case of COVID-19. About three-quarters of the province’s high schools and nearly nine out of 10 elementary schools have no active cases at all. But provincewide, school cases have spiked in recent weeks amid the pandemic’s second wave.

“In the first three weeks of November, the increase (of COVID-19) in the general population was 23 per cent, but in schools, the increase was 87 per cent,” said Natalie Mehra, head of the Ontario Health Coalition, a public health-care advocacy group.

“That’s way, way above what the general increase in the population is,” said Mehra, who wonders if Ontario has a firm grip on COVID-19 transmission rates.

“In schools, kids are sharing bathrooms, lunches, buses. There are all kinds of potential places for transmission,” she said. “So there is a huge difference in the increase in the number of cases and number of outbreaks in schools. That raises red flags.”

Kiera Bumbacco, a grade nine student at St. Andre Bessette high school, wears a mask and a face shield while attending in-school classes to ward off COVID-19. (Submitted photo)

LESSONS TO DRAW ON

In places where COVID-19 cases have been seen in numbers, Mackie said a common denominator is people letting their guard down, such as not wearing a mask or eating in close proximity to others.

“COVID-19 does not go on breaks,” he said. “If you give it a chance, it will spread.”

At the Catholic board, Staudt said she she believes being diligent about the rules, the tried-and-true stuff such as masking and hand-washing, is paying off. So are grouping pupils and homeroom teachers in cohorts to limit contact with others, and forming classes into bubbles sharing doors, halls and washrooms.

“We are together five days a week, at least 300 minutes a day,” she said. “With those numbers, I would call it a success. The cohorting and bubbling are working well.”

Bill Tucker, a former Thames Valley education director who now teaches at Western University, said he was concerned about the rapidly changing back-to-school landscape in September, but has been “impressed” both by how safety-conscious schools have been and their COVID-19 communication.

“This is speaking from a grandparent’s perspective, with grandchildren in two different school systems,” he said. “A parent whose many family members work in the school system.”

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