COVID-19 case count at public school board doubled in final stretch of first semester

·3 min read

Until December, it appeared as though Hamilton schools had a handle on COVID-19.

Outbreaks stayed at a relative low from September through November. Students and staff who tested positive most often contracted it off school property.

Hamilton’s school boards typically fared better than their neighbouring counterparts in the GTA, many of whom had shuttered at least one school by the end of the semester due to widespread outbreaks.

But as the second wave of the virus rolled through Hamilton late in November, the case counts in schools started to rise — quickly.

An analysis by The Spectator found that, by the time schools closed for the holidays in mid-December, the number of cases in the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board had doubled in its final two weeks.

Of the 212 cases in the first semester, the HWDSB listed 117 positive tests — or 55 per cent — in December. It also reported four new outbreaks in the final month — meaning the virus was transmitted to multiple people inside a school — also doubling its total outbreak count since September.

The rapid increase shows the difficulties schools faced trying to keep the virus away from its front doors as the second wave barged through Hamilton’s remaining places of community gathering, leaving practically no institution untouched by the infectious disease.

The spread provoked new lockdown measures ordered by the province. In January, schools will start the second semester entirely online, with elementary schools reopening in-person on Jan. 11 and secondary schools reopening on Jan. 25 at the earliest. The HWDSB expects classes to begin on Jan. 4, though there may be delays should students not all have remote learning devices — iPads, computers — on time.

While remote learning poses challenges of its own to staff, as well as students and their parents, Ontario premier Doug Ford has said the decision “will help ensure we do what’s needed to control the spread.”

Manny Figueiredo, HWDSB education director, says the transition will be difficult though the board understands the need to temporarily shutter schools given the sudden increase of cases.

In an interview with the Spectator, he defended the board’s approach to reducing community spread and pointed to the relatively low number of cases across Hamilton schools.

“The last stretch (of the semester), it was challenging,” Figueiredo said last week. “But I still think that, with about 40,000 kids and 5,000 staff showing up in-person, this is still a very low number, and I’m proud of how our team has responded.”

Figueiredo says the board learned quickly in the semester how critical the practice of class cohorting was.

“When a case came, we knew exactly who was in the class, who was in contact with who. It would have been impossible to do this without the public health nurses we had assigned to schools, because our contact tracing was critical with their support,” he said.

The number of cases in Hamilton schools still pale in comparison to those elsewhere in the GTA. As of Monday, Hamilton schools had reported 93 active cases, while Toronto had reported 726, Mississauga had 252 and Brampton had 235.

Unlike in November, however, Hamilton schools have surpassed cities like Ottawa and Vaughan in case counts, representing a disproportionate increase in recent weeks.

The rise among students and staff is part of a broader surge in Hamilton. The city reported 114 new cases on Monday, marking a record in active cases for the sixth straight day. As of Sunday afternoon, there were 1,250 active cases in the city.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce has said he hopes the closure of schools in January will help reduce cases to a point that children can return to in-person learning within a month.

“While our schools are note a source of rising community transmission, we can play an important part of the solution to save lives from COVID-19,” he said last week.

Jacob Lorinc, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator