Etches calls on province to reopen Ottawa schools

·2 min read
Etches calls on province to reopen Ottawa schools

Ottawa's medical officer of health is calling on the province to allow schools in this city to reopen as soon as possible, saying current COVID-19 rates here are manageable.

"The level of community transmission in Ottawa is similar to, or lower now, than it was at our peak in October when schools were open and we managed that level of COVID in the schools," Dr. Vera Etches said Tuesday during a technical briefing on the city's vaccination plan.

There are many different kinds of harms that we see with schools being closed, which lead us to wanting to open them as soon as we can. - Dr. Vera Etches

Last Wednesday, Ontario announced schools within four public health units in eastern Ontario could reopen on Monday. Ottawa was not on the list, and there's still no word from the province about when in-person learning can resume in this city.

Dr. Paul Roumeliotis, CEO of the Eastern Ontario Health Unit, told reporters on Tuesday he believes schools in that region will be allowed to reopen by Feb. 9 or Feb. 10, so long as caseloads remain on the right trajectory.

Etches argues Ottawa's current COVID-19 caseload doesn't justify the ongoing closure. She has compared in-class learning to essential work for children, and said parents are facing too much stress handling their own work while supervising their kids' at-home schooling.

There's also the strain on students: during last spring's provincewide shutdown, demand for mental health services among children and youth increased, Etches said.

"There are many different kinds of harms that we see with schools being closed, which lead us to wanting to open them as soon as we can," said Etches.

Return to school should not depend on vaccination campaign, Etches says

In recent weeks, Ottawa has seen a steady decline in COVID-19 transmission. On Tuesday, Ottawa Public Health reported just 23 new cases, while the test positivity rate has dropped to three per cent, down from 4.6 per cent two weeks ago.

If cases surge again, the city has proven itself equipped to track cases in schools and keep the virus at bay, said Etches.

"I never use the word 'safe,'" she said. "But what I feel confident about is that we can manage the COVID levels to decrease transmission within schools, just as we did in the fall."

In areas of Ontario where students returned to the classroom Monday, the province has introduced additional measures to control the spread of COVID-19 including targeted asymptomatic testing, more vigorous screening, mandatory masks for students in grades 1 to 3, and mandatory masks outdoors when physical distancing can't be maintained.