There’s just two weeks left before schools fill with children again as Ontario attempts to pull off its first full year of in-class learning since 2018-19.
Earlier this month the province put out their guidelines for a return to class. Mandated masks were a key feature of the plan along with improved ventilation in buildings. Sports and music are also allowed with safety conditions.
But the Lambton Kent public board and St. Clair Catholic board aren’t quite ready to adopt all the recommended measures.
“There are a few things that are permitted that we are just not quite ready to embrace yet,” says Lambton Kent Director of Education John Howitt. The public board put out their own back-to-school guidelines last week. Most of the document follows the provincial model but there are some variances.
“An example of that is assemblies. We think we just need to gather a little bit more data and let the school year get started before we go in that direction,” says Howitt.
The plan says all cafeterias will be closed to start the year but Howitt says there’s some wiggle room there.
“We have some really small schools where cafeterias may make sense to be used following the guidance of eating in cohorts and maintaining two metres minimum distance between cohorts. But we also have some context in schools where it may still be appropriate for students to eat in the classrooms.”
For schools where the cafeteria is closed, elementary students must bring their own food and eat it with their own class, without sharing.
High schoolers also need to bring their own food but are allowed to leave school to go buy lunch. There also won’t be any working vending machines.
All students are allowed to go home for lunch and there will be food at school if they forget to bring some. All ages must also bring a refillable water bottle instead of individually drinking from the fountains.
Scott Johnson, director of education for St. Clair Catholic, says their plan should be ready this week. “We’ve been working with the public board and our local medical officers of health to make sure that we’re pretty consistent in our applications,” he says.
Johnson says assemblies, field trips and cafeterias will also be unlikely to start the year.
The public board is allowing for field trips in cohorts.
The government initially said teachers and staff wouldn’t have to be vaccinated. But after criticism from teacher groups, parents and opposition leaders they said any unvaccinated school workers will have to undergo rapid testing each week.
Proponents of a mandate still say this is short of what’s needed for a safe return to the classroom. Howitt says as far as the public board is concerned, tighter restrictions are an issue for higher powers.
“I believe that’s a question not so much for us as employers as it is for the Ministry of Education, the Science Table, the Chief Medical Officer of Health and local health input. We will follow the guidance that we are provided,” he says. Johnson says he shares this position with his counterpart.
Results from the vaccination disclosure policy - which identifies how many teachers and staff at each school have been vaccinated - will be available to the public by Sept. 15.
Chatham-Kent’s Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Colby doesn’t believe the frequent testing strategy is a viable alternative to vaccination.
“That frequent testing strategy has not proved useful in preventing outbreaks… the idea of offering people an alternative of recent negative test results was a good idea, but it is not proving fruitful.”
He cited an example from the Netherlands last month where a music festival requiring either proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID test led to an outbreak of more than 1,000 cases. The 40 hour window between negative test and the actual concert proved more than enough time for people to spread the virus.
“I think we’re going to see, at all levels of government, more restrictions on what privileges unvaccinated people have. That’s my opinion based on looking at what’s happening around the country and around the world,” says Colby.
He says the province has started down the road of enforcing stronger vaccine rules but needs to go farther.
“We've seen the province already announcing that people who work with vulnerable populations really need to be vaccinated in order to protect them, or they shouldn’t work there. I think most people would consider that’s a sensible policy and not overly coercive.”
Colby also says he expects the COVID vaccine to soon be added to the Immunization of School Pupils Act, which would mandate the shot for kids attending school.
Alex Kurial, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Independent