Some Simcoe County parents pulling their kids out of school as COVID-19 cases rise

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As soon as the Simcoe County District School Board notified parents and students at Bear Creek Secondary School in Barrie, Ont., that there had been a confirmed case of the novel coronavirus, Amanda Gilbert pulled her 15-year-old daughter out of school.

Gilbert gave birth to twins two months premature in July, and with COVID-19 cases climbing across the region, she didn’t want to risk the virus being brought into her home and potentially affecting her family.

Read more: Coronavirus — Ontario government revises school, child care centre screening guidelines

At first, the Barrie mom planned to keep her Grade 11 daughter home for two weeks to self-isolate while she monitored any possible additional cases at Bear Creek.

And while the Barrie high school hasn’t reported any more COVID-19 cases, Gilbert said she plans to keep her daughter learning from home for the foreseeable future.

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“Last time, I feel like we waited too long to do anything about it, and I feel like that’s kind of happening again,” Gilbert said of Ontario’s rising COVID-19 cases.

“What are we waiting for? We know there’s a second wave coming, we know it’s starting, yet we’re still allowing everything to continue basically as it has been.”

Read more: New COVID-19 case confirmed at Bear Creek Secondary School in Barrie, Ont.

One classroom closed after the Simcoe County public school board confirmed the case of COVID-19 at Bear Creek, although the school’s building still remains open.

Aside from Bear Creek, three other schools under the Simcoe County District School Board are reporting one case of COVID-19 each — Admiral Collingwood Elementary School, Goodfellow Public School in Innisfil and Worsley Elementary School in Wasaga Beach.

Under the Simcoe Muskoka Catholic District School Board, five elementary schools are reporting one COVID-19 case each — Sister Catherine Donnelly and St. John Vianney in Barrie, St. Angela Merici in Bradford, Father F.X. O’Reilly in Tottenham and St. Paul’s in Alliston. While all the schools remain open, most have had to close at least one classroom.

Bobbi Howe, a Barrie mother with two children in elementary and high school, is thinking about pulling one of her daughters out of school due to the rising number of COVID-19 cases. Howe’s kids are enrolled in schools under the Simcoe Muskoka Catholic District School Board.

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While Howe’s elementary school daughter has been pursuing the board’s online learning option since the start of the school year, her other daughter has been attending classes in person.

“She’s immunocompromised — my elementary school daughter — so that’s why I kept her at home, and with the masks, she’s only in Grade 1, so I don’t know if she’d keep the mask on,” Howe told Global News. “My daughter who’s in high school, I knew (she) would.”

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If there’s a confirmed coronavirus case at Howe’s daughter’s high school, she said she would keep her home.

“The reason I’m hesitant is because I don’t know how her learning would go afterward,” she said.

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Under the Simcoe County District School Board, there are 2,900 high school students and 7,000 elementary students who are participating in the board’s online learning program. This represents about 18 per cent of all students in the board.

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“We have received some requests to switch between modes — both from in-school to Learn@Home and from Learn@Home to in-school,” Sarah Kekewich, the Simcoe County District School Board’s spokesperson, said in an email.

“At this time, switching between modes may take place at the natural term transition, which is February 2021.”

Kekewich said all teachers in the board are required to maintain digital learning platforms to ensure the continuity of learning for their students.

“Parents or guardians must notify their child’s classroom teacher and the school principal if they wish to remain at home,” she added. “The classroom teacher will provide specific instructions for accessing the digital platform assigned and there will be standard expectations for the submission of assignments.”

Read more: Staffer at Orillia, Ont. high school tests positive for COVID-19, health unit says

The region’s Catholic school board has more than 4,500 students enrolled in its online learning program, according to Simcoe Muskoka Catholic District School Board spokesperson Pauline Stevenson.

Students who are looking to move between in-class and online learning are only able to do so during natural breaks in the school year. For upcoming changes, requests must be submitted by Oct. 23. Transfers will be processed on Nov. 18 for elementary students and on Nov. 12 for high school students.

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“Students who have opted for in-class learning and are unable to attend school for any reason, including confirmed or suspected COVID-19 cases or self-isolation purposes, will not be permitted to join a virtual classroom,” the board says on its website.

“Instead, the students will continue to connect with their classroom teacher to complete work as required — this is the same approach we have always used to address longer-term student absences.”

Before Gilbert pulled her daughter out of Bear Creek, her concern was that students under Simcoe County’s public school board were able to leave the premises for lunch.

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“What is the point in having them stagger classes if you’re going to let them all congregate at lunchtime anyhow?” she said. “It doesn’t make any sense to me.”

Kekewich said Simcoe County’s public schools are working with students to make sure they’re informed about and practising the necessary COVID-19 health and safety measures. At this time, she notes, the board isn’t looking at prohibiting students from leaving for lunch.

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More than a week ago, the region’s Catholic school board stopped allowing students to leave for lunch, although it’s since modified its approach.

“What we have done for secondary school lunches is that we have moved the lunch period to the end of the school day,” Stevenson said, adding there are also two 15-minute nutrition breaks throughout the day.

“Students have the option to remain in the school and have their lunch at the end of the day in their classroom and it’s supervised, or they could leave the school and attend lunch outside school property and then come back and catch a bus, if they take a bus, or they have the option to leave and go home.”

Read more: High school students at Catholic schools in Simcoe, Muskoka no longer allowed to leave for lunch

Throughout Simcoe County, there are nine schools that have reported COVID-19 cases, although the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit hasn’t confirmed any school outbreaks.

On Thursday, the Ontario government revised screening guidelines for schools and child-care centres across the province. Officials are now asking parents to keep their children home from school for 24 hours if they have a headache or runny nose.

If a child has both those symptoms, officials are asking parents to consult a health-care provider or get their kids tested for the novel coronavirus before they return to school or child care.

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Over the last two weeks, there have been 386 school-related COVID-19 cases in Ontario. There are currently also three schools in the province that are closed due to the novel coronavirus.

Earlier this week, Ontario Premier Doug Ford confirmed the province has entered its second wave of COVID-19.

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