Ottawa’s medical officer of health says COVID-19 transmission in local schools does not currently warrant a shift to online-only learning as she and other health officials call for the provincial government to tighten up other aspects of its response.
Dr. Vera Etches and her counterparts in Toronto and Peel Region sent a letter to Ontario’s chief medical officer of health this past weekend calling for a stay-home order to supplement the recent province-wide “emergency brake” shutdown.
Mayor Jim Watson said in a statement to Global News through his press secretary that he spoke to Etches on Tuesday morning and “expressed his support for further measures” to reduce the spread of the virus locally.
He went on to highlight big box stores attracting large crowds as an area he was “particularly concerned about.”
Premier Doug Ford suggested in a press conference on Tuesday that further provincial restrictions could be coming in the next few days but did not provide specifics.
Etches, meanwhile, sent a letter to the directors of Ottawa’s four school boards on Tuesday outlining her position on keeping schools open amid a third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Multiple public health units in the Greater Toronto Area and southwestern Ontario have made decisions to close some schools to in-person learning in the past 24 hours due to the rapid spread of the coronavirus in the province’s third wave of the pandemic.
Etches wrote on Tuesday to clarify that while in the joint letter she asked for “consideration” to move schools online in jurisdictions where outbreaks were “significant,” she is not calling for schools in Ottawa to be closed now.
She said COVID-19 transmission in Ottawa schools is “manageable.” She said 73 per cent of schools have reported no people with an active infection following a possible exposure in the school, while 98 per cent of schools are currently currently free of an outbreak.
Ottawa Public Health’s COVID-19 dashboard shows seven ongoing outbreaks in local schools as of Tuesday morning with a total of nine cases connected to the outbreaks.
In addition, she said that when cases are identified in a student or staff member, the “vast majority” of these infections are from community exposure. Child-to-staff and child-to-child transmission “remains rare,” Etches said.
“At this time, schools are not a major driver of transmission of COVID-19 and so closing them alone will not turn this current COVID-19 resurgence around,” she wrote.
She also said incidents in which a variant of concern (VOC) was part of a possible COVID-19 exposure have not resulted in higher rates of transmission so far. There have been outbreaks in local schools with variants of concern as well as situations where VOC exposure did not result in an outbreak, Etches said.
Rather than focus Ottawa’s efforts to curb the spread of the virus on schools, Etches pointed to the need to reduce the number of non-essential places that people are congregating to limit the spread of COVID-19 in the classroom.
If schools alone are targeted while gatherings elsewhere go unaddressed, closing down classrooms could have an unintended backlash, she argued.
“Until fewer businesses are deemed essential and people get the message to stay at home, closing schools may inadvertently lead to additional gatherings in environments with fewer control measures in place,” Etches wrote.
The Ottawa-based Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario and its provincial partners echoed Etches’ sentiments in a statement released Tuesday.
The Children’s Health Coalition wrote to the provincial government calling for stricter measures to control COVID-19 transmission but said that schools should be the last to close and first to open under any new regime.
Etches has long held the stance that keeping schools open should be a priority to alleviate stress from the pandemic on parents and families. But she did not rule out the possibility of a future order to close schools as other regions in Ontario have already moved to do.
“If the number of community cases continues to rise, a stay-at-home order that includes school closures may be necessary,” she wrote, noting she would give “as much advanced notice” as possible before implementing those measures.
Safety concerns persist for some parents, however, as COVID-19 cases continue to climb in Ottawa.
Mark Fisher, a trustee with the Ottawa-Carleton District school board, said his family decided the two youngest kids would stay home this week, even though they will not have access to online classes, given the spike in cases in Ottawa.
“We looked at the situation from our own family circumstances and felt that it was best to keep our kids home this week and go into the break and, hopefully, that will cause a meaningful break in the transmissions locally,” he said.
Fisher said he would have liked to see the board switch to online classes this week, and the province impose tougher stay-at-home measures.
Etches noted that while school staff are priority populations for vaccination under Phase 2 of the province’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout, the city is still working its way through administering shots to older residents and people with high-risk medical conditions.
In the meantime, she urged schools to reinforce the need for families to use the daily screening tool to monitor for possible symptoms. She said that close contact before and after school should be limited to members of an individual’s household and that staff should be maintaining distance in the school and while on breaks.
— With files from The Canadian Press