Social barriers in Windsor school community with province's largest COVID-19 outbreak amplify risk

·6 min read

The province's largest school outbreak is taking place in a Windsor neighbourhood that faces a number of social barriers known to facilitate the spread of COVID-19.

Forty-nine cases of COVID-19 — 40 students and nine staff members — are now connected to the outbreak at Frank W. Begley Public School in Windsor's downtown. According to a map on the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit's website, the area surrounding the school has some of the highest active cases in the city, with a case rate ranging from 9.1 to 49 per 1,000 people.

The school, which closed on Nov. 17, remains shut until further notice.

The community surrounding the school is known to be home to a demographic that is diverse and of low-income. As for Begley itself, Windsorite Leslie McCurdy, a member of the Black Council of Windsor and a local performing artist, says what she's noticed from performing in the school is it's "probably one of the most multicultural schools in the city."

These factors suggest, according to experts, that people in this area may struggle with a language barrier and are possibly working frontline, low-paying jobs that prevent them from being able to work from home.

While these issues are known to exist, its unclear how much information the school board and public health have on the population they are serving and how well equipped they are to address these challenges. Both the board and local health unit have deflected questions on the demographics of the school population and have not outlined the steps they have taken to help families cope.

Tahmina Aziz/CBC
Tahmina Aziz/CBC

"If you don't have the data then you don't know what to do," said McCurdy, who lives relatively close to the school's neighbourhood. "When you have the information that you need, then you can answer the questions as to what that need is and that tends to be something that's not done well in this area — proper studies and research and data on how things should function and the impact of things on all of our communities."

COVID-19 discriminates

What we do know, says University of Windsor associate law professor and director of the Windsor Law Centre for Cities Anneke Smit, is that COVID-19 impacts populations differently.

"What is clear is COVID doesn't hit everybody in the same way," she said. "I think there have been challenges publicly discussed by those in government and public organizations in terms of their ability to tailor responses to the communities in question."

Low-income populations tend to have a number of barriers working against them, including living in smaller and more dense areas, working front-line jobs, a lack of child support and a dependency on public transit.

Some of these factors mean they aren't "able to isolate as effectively," if need be, nor take time off of work to stay with their children, United Way's Windsor-Essex director of continuous improvement and advocacy, Frazier Fathers said.

Fathers added that many newcomer families are also multigenerational, meaning everyone from grandparents to grandchildren live under one roof.

Dale Molnar/CBC
Dale Molnar/CBC

"So what you see there is they're just larger family units and so if one person happens to get sick, the multiplier effect is a bit bigger there because you have maybe four or five, six people in a household," he said.

And when it comes to language barriers, Fathers said he can understand how that makes things even more difficult. He noted that the people in the Begley area speak a range of languages, including Arabic, Spanish and Chinese.

"One of the challenges is just getting that information out there in the appropriate language and ... that's really difficult to do ... in an ideal world you would want to go door-to-door or something like that but you're not going to because it's COVID," he said.

In an email to CBC News Wednesday, the Greater Essex County District School Board (GECDSB) said in terms of supports and resources, "teachers are in contact with students / families. All the available supports are being provided to students and staff."

Lack of demographic data

While dealing with the outbreak, the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit said what's been challenging are some of the social barriers the school community faces, including a low socioeconomic status and language barriers that affect public health literacy.

"There are a lot of issues there that have always been there, but I think because of the spread, it is just now showing more and more evident in terms of how some of these families are impacted more than the others," medical officer of health Dr. Wajid Ahmed said Monday.

Chief Nursing Officer of the health unit Theresa Marentette said during Tuesday's COVID-19 briefing that the health unit has been able to provide specific resources and supports to the community based on demographic data provided by the public school board.

But when CBC News asked the board for the demographic profile of the school, they said they don't keep that information.

Windsor-Essex County Health Unit
Windsor-Essex County Health Unit

In an email to CBC News Wednesday, the board said they cannot share information on how many families require help with technology, such as wifi access or laptops.

But earlier this week, the board wrapped up a technical needs survey to know families' "technology needs for home learning."

According to the board, 391 students were attending Begley in person. Meanwhile, 146 others were in online learning or with paper packages and that based on these numbers, it's one of the schools with low virtual or paper enrolment.

Aside from the hospital providing testing and the school board offering support, Ahmed said he's not "aware of any other agencies or any other departments who are supporting these families."

He added that they haven't heard any specific concerns at this point.

"To what degree is there actually consultation with the folks that are the most affected at this point," Smit said, adding that she presumes the board is talking to the families.

"Decisions don't need to be made without them at the table ... so if the data isn't there then figuring out the best way to talk to parents and again that may well be happening, the board is best placed to do that."

Pandemic has exacerbated social inequities

Should this continue more long-term, Fathers said one concern would be children's education suffering due to a lack of technology or ability to learn online. He's also worried about parents being unable to go to work and losing a job or getting sick themselves.

CBC Windsor
CBC Windsor

"COVID has really exacerbated the existing inequities in our society in many ways and so those who were in precarious positions are more precariously placed now," Fathers said.

"There's a lot of potential downstream impacts and it'll take time for those to play out ... The longer that they're sort of in their own sort of mini lockdown, with that school being out, it has more and more impacts [that] sort of begin to compound."

Due to where the school is located in the community, sometimes it's thought of as a "disadvantaged school," but McCurdy said she hopes that label isn't placed on the children.

"I'd hate for them to be labelled in some way as disadvantaged because again that's a single story about who they are and they're so much more than that," she said. "We really need to make sure that we're putting the resources into giving them the best opportunities to show that and the first thing is to keep them healthy."