Chatham education directors maintain in-person learning remains safe

·4 min read

School officials are insisting face to face learning is safe following a sharp rise of COVID cases in school this month.

October began with COVID cases in 16 schools in the Lambton Kent District School Board and nine St. Clair Catholic schools. The positivity rate for schools in both boards was just less than 30 per cent.

But Lambton Kent Education Director John Howitt says while there may be cases at many schools, there aren’t many cases overall. Oct. 1 the public board had 39 total cases with 12 in the Catholic board.

And Howitt adds most of those cases came from outside school grounds.

“The number of confirmed cases for students being infected in the community continues to be significantly greater than students infected in a school setting,” says Howitt. “Statistically our schools and our classrooms continue to be safe.”

Along with fellow Education Director Scott Johnson of St. Clair Catholic, the pair credit several factors in keeping overall cases on the lower side.

“Cohorting is one of the key strategies that have been very effective within schools… We have very few examples of confirmed cases across cohorts and in the cases I can think of it’s siblings that are in different classes,” says Howitt.

Johnson, who has now officially taken over his position from former education director Deb Crawford, says parents are playing a big part by keeping kids home when they’re not feeling well, even if they don’t have COVID.

“That’s just one of the many protective layers that are happening right now and the reality is we’re not seeing spread in our schools and it’s because of those many variables,” says Johnson. In addition to cohorting he says investments in ventilation systems, physical distancing and good hygiene are the primary factors in preventing spread of the virus.

“I think the numbers show that schools are a safe place to be,” says Johnson.

And Chatham-Kent Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Colby says he has no plans to introduce stricter measures, such as a vaccine mandate, at this time. “The cohort system that we have right now is working incredibly well to provide a safe school environment… But I think compulsion would be the last measure that would be undertaken. We are hoping to convince people of the merits of this without heavy handed measures.”

But Colby does say there will be “serious debate” about whether COVID shots will be added to children’s mandatory vaccination lists once they’re approved for five to 11 year-olds.

Both directors say at this point there’s no plans to permanently transition anyone out of the classroom.

“To open up movement and transition from face-to-face learning to remote learning would have a greater negative impact on students and student learning… Unless there’s some very specific cases we are looking at maintaining class lists as they are today,” says Howitt.

“In secondary it is very difficult to switch platforms because of the amount of time we’re currently into the new semester,” says Johnson. “There remains some opportunity at the end of semesters if the space and the timetabling remain. In elementary it is addressed more on a case by case basis based on urgent need.”

The provincial rapid test pilot program, rolled out at the Ridgetown and Tilbury high schools along with Ursuline College in Chatham, hasn’t had a chance to be tested out yet. While both Tilbury and Ursuline have had COVID cases, Howitt says this happened “the day that the kits were arriving at the school so we weren’t able to get a successful test,” while Johnson says the tests didn’t go out because “there was a misinterpretation on our side of the house as to how to follow up with that.”

The directors said they’ll deploy the kits if there are more cases, though Colby says the province is holding a meeting to discuss the future of the rapid test program.

Both boards have dealt with numerous mask exemption requests for students. But the vast majority have been found to be without merit and rejected.

“More requests for mask exemptions are declined than are permitted. We do not have a significant proportion of mask exemptions,” says Howitt.

He says the process is “not as simple as finding a form that is appearing on a Rant and Rave Facebook page and giving it to the principal, nor is it as simple as saying to the school that we don’t want our child to wear masks. The expectation is that they are wearing masks from Grades 1-12.”

Johnson says “it is something that is minor and it’s not something that is given away easily,” of the exemptions.

Alex Kurial, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Independent

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