North Lambton Secondary is closed this week after a COVID outbreak left the school without enough staff to run the building.
On Tuesday there were 15 students and one staff member who have tested positive for the virus. It’s currently the largest active outbreak in the Lambton Kent District School Board.
While there is just one positive staff case at the Forest school, a combination of events led to so many staff needing to self-isolate that there simply weren’t enough people left to safely open the school.
“In some cases due to exposure in the community, in some cases due to exposures at school, and in some cases due to exposures within their family that require them to be self-isolating,” says the board’s Director of Education John Howitt on where staff may have come into contact with the virus.
The teachers isolating at home are still well, and instructing their classes via online learning.
The permanent staff absences brings another pandemic issue to the forefront: lack of substitute teachers.
“Oh yes,” says Howitt on whether efforts were made to temporarily staff the school, “but that was exhausted as well.” He says all available substitutes were already at other schools or also self-isolating.
This isn’t a recent problem either. “We are seeing an increased need for the use of vocational teachers and temporary staff in other job categories due to two main things,” says Howitt. “One, an increase of cases that has required the staff to self-isolate.” Lambton County entered the Grey/Lockdown stage on Monday after several days of climbing new case numbers.
“Or two, the self-screener tells them that they are not to report to work that day due to a symptom that they may be experiencing,” says Howitt.
Howitt says the school board is attempting to hire more substitute teachers and staff, and also contacting retired members for possible shifts.
Jennifer Kumpf, president of OSSTF District 10, representing secondary school teachers, says even if there’s work available, substitute teachers face additional hardships.
“They’re in a little bit of a different situation, not having access to paid sick leave,” Kumpf says. “Unfortunately occasional teachers are a little more precarious in their work, in that they don’t have access to some of the types of leaves that they would if they were permanent teachers.”
Kumpf says in outbreak situations like these, both students and staff are deprived of the education they signed up for. “By and large that’s not the preferred method because my OSSTF members are teaching the students that chose face to face learning, and they chose that in-person learning for a good reason.”
“That works for them and their individual circumstances or for their family. So it makes things a little more challenging because they’re learning in a format (online) that they didn’t choose for themselves, unlike someone who selected the virtual school and anticipated to be learning online for extended periods of time,” says Kumpf.
“They’re working diligently to follow health and safety protocols, and are doing their best to deliver programs in less than ideal pandemic conditions,” says Kumpf of her members overall. “There are a lot of additional pieces that are added into a school day that aren’t there outside of a pandemic.”
North Lambton is expected to reopen Monday. But Howitt says people need to be smart with their interactions. “I am very concerned about the increase in the number of cases within our community. It’s not about the schools, the schools are a reflection of the cases in the community.”
Speaking when there were 11 student cases, Howitt says “Three of them have something in common. The other eight are separate, distinct exposures outside of the school. So it’s not one party that was a super spreader event.”
“It is multiple cases of people being in a position where they’re exposed to COVID-19. That is very concerning to me. That is about choice and behaviours, and can be controlled by following public health advice,” says Howitt.
As of Tuesday there were no confirmations of variant cases in the North Lambton outbreak. But at Brooke Central in Alvinston, which is also closed, at least two of the seven student cases are variant-linked.
Alex Kurial, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Independent