Community risks at school outweigh the benefits of in-person learning says Sudbury medical officer of health

·4 min read

Public Health Sudbury & Districts (PHSD) isn’t saying exactly how long students in the Sudbury area will be out of their real life classrooms.

The area’s move from the Red-Control zone into the Grey-Lockdown zone that came into effect at 12:01 a.m. today was announced Thursday by PHSD and the Ontario government as a way to put an "emergency brake" on the current spike in COVID-19 cases.

On Thursday, the health unit reported 55 new COVID-19 cases, a record high number locally. It was also revealed there are 263 active cases being monitored by PHSD, again a record high daily total.

On the same day, Public Health Sudbury also announced a lockdown for area primary and secondary schools that will come into effect this coming Monday morning, March 15, 2021.

All schools in the Greater Sudbury and Sudbury and Manitoulin districts will transition to virtual learning. The exception is Chapleau area schools.

Dr. Penny Sutcliffe, the medical officer of health, said the decision to shut down the schools was not taken lightly. She said the health unit has had regular communication with the school boards to discuss the options.

"It has been a very difficult time for everybody and my commitment has been to protect in-person learning as long as we possibly can," Sutcliffe said during an online news conference Thursday.

"That has really been contingent on keeping our level of infection low in the community. When it's in the community, it gets into the schools. When it gets into the schools, we see dismissals, we see outbreaks and really significant disruption for our kids," said Sutcliffe.

She said the in-person learning is good from the intellectual, emotional, social and safety perspectives. But things have changed Sutcliffe said.

"With current numbers of cases and VOCs (Variants of Concern), we have hit a tipping point whereby the benefits of face-to-face learning are outweighed by the risks in of COVID-19 transmission in our community. Public Health’s ability to prevent further spread through case and contact follow-up is increasingly stretched and we are at capacity,” said Sutcliffe.

“Moving into the lockdown zone will be the circuit breaker we need to set us on a steady course. I recognize these developments will be difficult for many. Now is the time to support one another, commit to the requirements in the lockdown zone and continue to be kind and patient,” Sutcliffe added.

Sutcliffe also told the news conference that the lockdown as it stands now will continue until further notice. She said no firm date has been set for when it will end. Sutcliffe said things could change if the level of compliance with protective measures improves and if the case numbers change.

However, a press release issued by the Sudbury Catholic District School Board Thursday seems to indicate there is a tentative plan for students to return to in-person classes after two weeks of remote learning.

“All elementary and secondary students who were attending school face-to-face will engage in remote learning from March 15th to and including March 26th, 2021, unless otherwise advised,” said the press release from the Sudbury Catholic board.

Sutcliffe said in a PHSD news release this is “a very fluid situation, and I will be closely monitoring it to ensure students and staff can return to in-person learning when it is safe to do so.”

The public health official was also asked about the decision to re-open local schools following the Christmas holiday lockdown. Considering the number of outbreaks and new cases involving students, Sutcliffe was asked whether it was a wise decision.

Sutcliffe said there are new cases in the schools and that is because of new cases emerging in the community.

"I absolutely believe -- and there is strong evidence about the importance of in-person learning -- and the fact we have been able to protect it this long is really tremendous. So I absolutely stand by that," said Sutcliffe.

She said the public health will be closely watching the situation for when a decision can be made to return local students to in-person learning.

Len Gillis, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Sudbury.com