TORONTO — School boards in Ontario are calling on the provincial government to reinstate COVID-19 reporting and tracking when schools reopen next week, with some saying they will release available data to families.
The Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board of Trustees sent a letter to Education Minister Stephen Lecce on Wednesday expressing "grave concern, disappointment, and frustration" over recent changes to how COVID-19 will be managed in schools.
The board said it was especially disappointed with the discontinuation of COVID-19 reporting as well as the dismissal of students and staff when a positive case has been identified in a classroom or cohort.
The board called on the province to reconstitute the COVID-19 reporting system that was in place before the winter break. It also said the province should provide better quality masks to students and an "adequate number" of rapid test kits to all students and staff.
"The mental health and well-being of staff and students has been and continues to be a significant challenge as we continue to navigate the pandemic," the letter said.
"Ensuring measures are in place to support a safe return to in-person learning mitigates the apprehension and anxiety resulting from the recent change to practice."
The Limestone District School Board said in a statement Wednesday evening that it would be sending a letter to the provincial government and Ontario's chief medical officer of health requesting tracking and reporting of COVID-19 in schools by public health units.
The board also called for continued funding of rapid antigen tests for all students and staff and "transparent and timely" communication to families and staff regarding changes to in-person and remote learning.
When asked Wednesday why the government is no longer reporting COVID-19 data in schools, Ontario's top doctor said the province modified its protocols in its “pivot from Delta to Omicron."
Dr. Kieran Moore said the province will continue to report certain COVID-19 data, such as virus-related admissions to hospitals for children between the ages of five to 11 and 12 to 17.
“We've always had to have a risk-based and balance-based approach to this pandemic, and I think we're hitting the right mark with Omicron and we will be transparent with all of those metrics," he said.
The province has touted shipments of masks, updated ventilation systems and the eventual rollout of rapid tests to students and staff member as parts of its return to in-person learning plan.
Moore added that the two rapid antigen tests that will be provided to students will “empower” parents, by letting them know if their child has the virus and whether they should isolate at home.
Some school boards have decided to take matters into their own hands when schools reopen next week, in the absence of regular COVID-19 reporting from the province.
In a letter to parents and guardians, the Durham District School Board (DDSB) said it's preparing to share COVID-19 data, to the extent it is available.
That includes reporting confirmed and presumed COVID-19 cases in schools, ensuring families and staff have a mechanism for self-reporting COVID-19 test results, and providing information on school and class closures.
"Our goal is to be as transparent as possible with families through this public reporting," the board said.
In a statement, the Toronto Catholic District School Board said it's also planning to go beyond the provincial requirements, by notifying "any impacted cohort" if someone chooses to disclose a positive COVID-19 rapid antigen test or PCR test result.
A spokesperson for the Toronto District School Board said on Tuesday that the board is still determining what may be possible in terms of reporting COVID-19 data.
Public health units will be required to notify families if 30 per cent of a school — including staff and students — is absent, but it will not be confirmed whether all absences are due to COVID-19.
Principals have to report daily absences to the education ministry, which will posted online as part of the province's COVID-19 data.
The DDSB said it will also report absenteeism publicly when it reaches 15 per cent, as opposed to the 30 per cent threshold officials said would need to be reached in order for families to be notified.
Other public health units said they would be following the province's guidance for reporting absenteeism and would not be reporting COVID-19 data.
For example, the Lambton Kent District School Board said since it will not be receiving confirmed COVID-19 case data from local public health units, it will not be reporting confirmed COVID-19 cases involving students or staff.
A spokesperson for the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board said it is "following the Ministry of Education’s direction."
Meanwhile,in a letter to families, Bluewater District School Board asked students to complete a rapid antigen test — which were provided to them by the Ministry of Education before the winter break — prior to returning to school on Jan. 17, if they have any tests remaining.
Ontario's schools, which have been teaching students online since early January, are to resume in-person learning on Monday.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 13, 2021.
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.
Noushin Ziafati, The Canadian Press