Local school boards and health officials are reassuring parents that schools are safe.
The public and Catholic school education directors have said students in Chatham-Kent currently going to class will continue learning in-person, despite the number of COVID-19 outbreaks at schools.
As of Sept. 30, there are four schools across the municipality with small outbreaks (17 cases in total). According to local education directors, there won’t be an opportunity at the moment for parents to switch their children back to remote learning from home -- unless there is a strong case for it.
Education Director of the St. Clair Catholic District School Board Scott Johnson said while there may be an opportunity down the road, it’s a very slight chance.
“In secondary, it’s very difficult to switch platforms because of the amount of time we’re currently into a semester. There remains some opportunity at the end of semesters if spaces remain. In elementary, it’s more of a case-by-case basis based on urgent need, but we believe we’ve addressed most of our moves at this point,” said Johnson.
Education Director of the Lambton-Kent District School Board John Howitt said a school outbreak could be as little as two students. He added that moving people around and risking an outbreak could be more trouble than it’s worth.
“To open up movement and transition from face-to-face learning into remote learning would have a greater negative impact on student learning with that change going on. So, unless there are some very specific cases, we are maintaining class lists as they are today to the degree possible, and we’ll constantly review that with the data of confirmed cases within our schools,” said Howitt.
Both Howitt and Johnson said school sports would be moving forward with safety protocols in place.
Chatham-Kent Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Colby pointed out that there have been zero COVID-19 outbreaks so far related to sports teams in the community, largely because they have precautions in place.
“We’ve learned a thing or two since the pandemic started,” said Colby.
Colby also said exemptions for masks at school are based on the honour system. This means no doctor’s note or proof is currently required, but he has the authority to change that. He said he could introduce a tougher mask documentation policy for schools in the future if necessary. Colby added that the current school cohort system is working to isolate students who come down with symptoms of the virus.
“Compulsion would be the last measure that would be undertaken,” said Colby. “We are hoping to convince people of the merit of this without heavy-handed measures.”
According to Howitt and Johnson, there are very few students with mask exemptions.
Howitt said families in his school board must go through a rigorous process with the principals before a mask exemption is granted, adding that more are denied than are approved.
Johnson echoed the statement. He added mask exemptions are not handed out easily at his schools, and his students could be safely accommodated and distanced within a class based on their masking requirement.
The two school boards acknowledge there have been bumps along the road with a pilot program at Ursuline College in Chatham, Tilbury District High School, and Ridgetown District High School to allow students to get tested at home for COVID-19.
Johnson said Ursuline failed to give out the test kits in time because of a misunderstanding.
Howitt said conditions weren’t ideal for effective testing initially. He said this is because the tests showed up the same day of its first confirmed case, and Ridgetown has yet to have a positive case.
As it stands, the public school board reported 87.2 percent of its staff are fully vaccinated, while the Catholic school board reported 88 percent had received two shots.
Howitt, Johnson, and Colby continued to reiterate that COVID-19 transmission is not happening in schools, and the cases are coming from the community.
As of Oct. 1, the number of active cases in Chatham-Kent sits at 107.
Bird Bouchard, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Ridgetown Independent News