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Ottawa Public Health proactively monitoring absenteeism rates in schools, Etches says

Medical officer of health Dr. Vera Etches speaks with reporters on Wednesday. Medical officer of health Dr. Vera Etches speaks with reporters on Wednesday.

Ottawa's top doctor says Ottawa Public Health will not wait for schools to report absenteeism rates above 30 per cent before investigating a possible COVID-19 outbreak in schools.

As students returned to in-person learning last week, the Ontario government said principals are only required to report possible COVID-19 outbreaks at schools when absenteeism rates hit 30 per cent.

However, medical officer of health Dr. Vera Etches says Ottawa Public Health is proactively looking at the absenteeism rates itself and, "not waiting for the 30 per cent threshold."

"Where we see that they're higher, we're reaching out to schools to understand what's behind that," said Etches on Wednesday.

"We’d like to know is it because many people are choosing to do online learning, is it because we have an illness, is it because it’s something else. We’re trying to understand is it all in one class, is it across many because if we see concerning patterns of transmission there may be practices we need to reinforce, there may be situations where the exposures could have been higher risk so we want to address these things."

Ottawa Public Health's school nurses, public health inspectors and an infection prevention and control team are monitoring COVID-19 cases in schools to support the transition back to school during the Omicron wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As of Wednesday at 10:30 a.m., five Ottawa schools had an absenteeism rate of 30 per cent or more.

  • Ottawa Carleton District School Board Adult High School – 37.8 per cent
  • Clifford Bowey Public School – 31.5 per cent
  • Frederick Banting Secondary Alternative School – 33.3 per cent
  • Regina Street Alternative School – 30 per cent
  • York Street Public School – 31.9 per cent

“The context I’m operating in is that we are looking at the transmissibility of this virus and trying to minimize morbidity and mortality as well as maintain essential services," said Etches.

"So school being an essential service for children and youth, the disruption of learning is there when whole cohorts are dismissed."

The medical officer of health says screening every day, masking and physical distancing can slow down the introduction and transmission of COVID-19 in schools.

“Dismissal of cohorts doesn’t stop transmission, it won’t stop transmission necessarily. The community surrounding levels of COVID are an ongoing source of introduction into schools. So the first thing we have to do every day is check whether we have symptoms that could be COVID," said Dr. Etches.

"Overall, we are not aiming for a COVID zero environment; we are aiming for migrating the harms and protecting the people at higher risk.”

Etches: Stay cautious

With students back in school for in-person learning, the medical officer of health is asking parents and guardians to limit interactions outside of school so kids can remain in the class.

"I would like to see us approach all of our interactions with caution still. We still have high levels of COVID-19 in the community," said Etches.

"My recommendation for families is to prioritize the school settings, knowing there can be exposure in schools and think carefully about what other exposures are added in in the community setting."

Dr. Etches says social and sports activities are important for a child's health.

"We're just trying to proceed step-by-step, have children and youth back in school, get them after that back to the activities that make a difference for them as well." Top Stories

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