Ottawa's public school board outlines its 'greatest concerns' ahead of the return to in-person learning
An advisory council is discussing stopping the playing of the national anthem at OCDSB schools (Colton Praill/CTV News Ottawa)
The chair of the Ottawa Carleton District School Board says the board's "greatest concerns remain unaddressed' as students and staff prepare to return to class on Monday for the first time in a month.
Chair Lynn Scott and the board are calling on the province to continue to track and publicly report COVID-19 cases in schools, and implement a "Test to Return" strategy for students and staff following a COVID-19 illness or exposure.
In a letter to Education Minister Stephen Lecce, Scott raises concerns about tracking and reporting COVID-19 cases in schools, a lack of N95 masks for students and the availability of tests.
Students in the Ottawa Carleton District School Board return to class on Monday for in-person learning for the first time since the start of the Christmas break on Dec. 17. Students have been engaged in online learning since Jan. 5.
Scott tells Lecce that trustees asked her to share a number of "specific requests" relating to the reopening of schools next week.
"First among these is the need for continued tracking and public reporting of confirmed and suspected COVID-19 cases in schools by local Public Health Units," writes Scott. "Reporting rates of absenteeism is an imprecise and inadequate proxy for understanding the prevalence of Covid-19 cases in schools."
The Ontario government announced this week that data on absentee rates will be available for each school, but parents will only be notified of a potential COVID-19 outbreak in a school when approximately 30 per cent of students and staff are absent.
Parents will not be notified of each COVID-19 case or exposure within their child's school.
"Families should not have to rely on uninformative absence reports or on community rumour to determine whether or not a child may have been exposed to COVID19 infection at school, or whether the risk of exposure to COVID-19 at a school exceeds their family risk tolerance in light of other family members who have unique vulnerabilities to the virus," said Scott.
Earlier this week, medical officer of health Dr. Vera Etches said "word will get around" when people are staying home when they're sick before the school reaches the 30 per cent absent threshold.
Another concern for the OCDSB is the availability of tests for students and teachers. Each student and staff member will receive two COVID-19 rapid tests when in-person learning resumes.
"Students and staff must have access to PCR testing in instances of high-risk exposure and suspected COVID-19," said Scott.
"In addition, our schools need continued funding for and supplies of rapid antigen tests for all students and staff, in support of implementing a “Test to Return” strategy following COVID-19 illness or exposure."
The Ottawa Carleton District School Board is also calling for medical masks and non-fit-tested N95 masks to be provided for students, long-term "adequate" funding for upgrades to school ventilation systems beyond HEPA filters and a promise that the province will cover any COVID-19 related expenses not funded through the budget.