Amid a reduction in contact tracing and testing, provincial government to suspend COVID-19 reporting in schools.
Niagara Region Public Health will be relying heavily on parents to help provide COVID-19 case counts in Niagara schools when students return to classrooms.
“Our feeling is that it’s important information for parents to know ... so they can make a decision about what they want to do with their child — keep them in school or bring them home to do online learning,” said Dr. Mustafa Hirji.
Comments from Niagara’s acting medical officer of health come just days after the province released a memo to school boards saying it will stop collecting COVID-19 numbers and suspend reporting of new infections.
The government said due to testing limitations, as well as case and contact management, it will turn its focus to higher-risk settings.
A source at the Ministry of Education said upon a return to school, rigorous screening and monitoring of symptoms by families and staff will be necessary in limiting transmission. School boards will also be asked to reinstate daily on-site confirmation of screening for students and staff.
Additionally, an extensive COVID-19 list will be provided, with any person who tests positive, or experiences symptoms, required to self-isolate, regardless of vaccination status.
St. Catharines MPP Jennie Stevens called upon the government to reverse its decision, saying that “removing the data of the numbers is just not the answer.”
“(Premier Ford) is actually treating … students, staff and educators like pawns in his attempt to hide the rising COVID numbers and it’s shameful,” said Stevens. “There is no planning by this government and it’s showing.”
Ontario will move to Online learning will continue until at least Jan. 17 to allow time for vaccinations and to limit the impact of the Omicron variant on hospitals.
Amanda Lepp, a Niagara-on-the-Lake mother of two, said she understands parents’ frustration, but personally she felt “relieved” by the school closures.
“With the lack of contact tracing (and) testing that was going to happen, we were really nervous to send our kids back,” said Lepp. “I was worried that things could have gone sideways quickly.”
With public health cutting back on much of its contact tracing to focus on providing vaccinations, as well as limited PCR testing, Hirji said it is difficult to provide an accurate number on active COVID-19 cases.
As for school cases, “Our goal is to try to have some information still. It’s going to really rely, though, on a parent informing the school that their child is sick with COVID-19,” Hirji said. “We’re not going to be able to review the lab results and follow up with every child the way were in the past.”
Hirji said public health is discussing ways to continue providing some sort of case numbers in schools to the public. He hopes also to work out a protocol whereby schools would decide on their own whether to close a classroom, or even a school, in cases of an outbreak.
Education director Camillo Cipriano said Niagara Catholic District School Board has spoken with public health throughout the Christmas break and continues to have a “strong working relationship.”
District School Board of Niagara communications officer Carolyn LoConte said it has not yet discussed changes to COVID-19 reporting with public health officials, but “we are always open to working collaboratively with them.”
Both Shannon Smith and Brian Barker — president of Ontario Secondary Schools Teachers’ Federation District 22 and Niagara president of Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, respectively — released statements this week criticizing the province’s plan to halt testing in schools.
Barker said the lack of reporting is problematic and will not “paint a true picture of what the conditions are like in our schools.”
“Prince Philip School in Niagara Falls had 49 confirmed cases just before school was let out. Without monitoring and reporting cases, schools, staff, students and families are being put at risk and unable to make informed decisions about their health and safety,” he said.
“I think the reason for this is to not give the public a true indication of how bad it is.”