COVID cases in Hamilton schools ‘higher than they’ve ever been,’ says HWDSB chair

·3 min read

Nearly half of all Hamilton schools have at least one case of COVID-19 as students and staff begin the long-awaited April break.

Since the beginning of the month, the public board has reported 78 cases of the virus in 39 schools.

The Catholic board has reported 57 cases in the last nine days. As of April 9, 23 of the board’s 45 elementary and secondary schools have cases.

“Schools in regions all around Hamilton are shutting down again, fuelling the safety concerns parents and educators in Hamilton have had for some time,” said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath in an April 8 press release. “Parents are once again being forced to choose between continuing to send their kids into crowded classrooms, and pulling their children out of school and trying to make online learning work when it hasn’t so far, for so many.”

In a news conference Thursday, Horwath called on Premier Doug Ford “to protect in-class learning in Hamilton” with measures including smaller class sizes, touchless doors and faucets, and vaccines for staff.

She said these measures will not only keep students and staff safe, but will keep schools open.

Hamilton is experiencing a surge of the virus in the community and in schools, with the majority of active cases in those under the age of 60.

But Hamilton public health has yet to pull the trigger and enact section 22 of the Health Protection and Promotion Act, which gives local medical officers of health the authority to order school closures in their region.

On Thursday, school boards advised families they should prepare for a possible shift to remote learning after the break. Hamilton’s medical officer of health, Dr. Elizabeth Richardson, said she would make the decision next week.

Some Hamilton students are already learning remotely.

There are currently 43 classes or cohorts closed in 19 Hamilton-Wentworth Catholic District School Board schools as of April 9. The Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board does not keep a tally of closed cohorts.

Since the February return to classrooms, three schools — St. Teresa of Avila Catholic Elementary School, Dr. J.E. Davey Elementary School and Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Elementary School, which is currently closed with seven student cases — have temporarily moved to remote learning for at least a week amid outbreaks.

In the same period, there have been a total of 32 school outbreaks, 14 of them ongoing.

There are ongoing outbreaks at 14 Hamilton schools — five public, five Catholic, two French and two private — half linked to variants of concern.

A new outbreak was declared on Thursday at Prince of Wales Elementary School in central Hamilton after two students tested positive for the virus.

The largest are at Ecole elementaire Pavillon de la Jeunesse, which has 13 cases, and Bellstone Christian School in Mount Hope, which has 10 cases. Both outbreaks have screened positive for variants of concern.

“What we’ve heard from the province is that they are reiterating schools are safe, but they are using provincial averages,” said HWDSB chair Dawn Danko, adding that provincial averages don’t necessarily reflect the local context.

In March, Hamilton schools reported more than 300 cases of the virus, the vast majority in the last two weeks. Last month’s numbers are more than double the previous record of 115 cases in December.

“We are seeing significant increases in cases in Hamilton,” Danko said. “Not at the level of Peel or Toronto at this point, but they are significant and they’re higher than they’ve ever been.”

The public board says it will tell parents on the evening of April 15 whether in-person learning will resume following the break, with the Catholic board also planning communication as soon as a decision is made.

Kate McCullough, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator