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Hamilton public school board calls for education workers to be prioritized for COVID-19 vaccination

Top officials with Hamilton's public school board are asking the city's public health unit to prioritize education workers in Hamilton schools for COVID-19 vaccinations. Don Mitchell / Global News

Top officials with Hamilton’s public school board are asking the city’s public health unit to prioritize education workers in Hamilton schools for COVID-19 vaccinations as cases continue to rise locally.

In a statement released on Tuesday, Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board chair Dawn Danko said the formal request follows the provincial government’s announcement that education workers are included in Phase 2 of Ontario’s immunization plan.

“We are at a critical point in wave three of this pandemic,” said Danko. “HWDSB requests the opportunity to coordinate with Hamilton Public Health Services to vaccinate front-line, in-person education workers immediately.”

She cited other public health units in nearby regions — including Niagara — that are vaccinating staff in the school system during the April break.

“Vaccinating education workers now will improve the conditions that allow schools to stay open,” she said.

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Read more: Toronto schools ordered to close temporarily due to rising COVID-19 cases

Manny Figueiredo, director of education for the HWDSB, said the board is having ongoing conversations with Hamilton public health about the possibility of moving to fully remote learning after the upcoming spring break.

In an interview on Global News Radio 900 CHML’s Bill Kelly Show, Figueiredo pointed to the number of COVID-19 cases recorded in public schools during the first five days of April — 39 among students and staff — compared to 20 cases recorded during the first five days of March.

“I’m worried about after next week if students will not be in any type of remote learning or in school, it’s the surge after that,” said Figueiredo. “Worried about community spread that might come into the schools after spring break. So that is my greatest concern at this point.”

He said a quarter of staff absences in the past two weeks have been related to COVID-19.

“Either they had symptoms, didn’t come to work, or there was a case in a school or an outbreak, and they were determined by public health to isolate for a time period. … So what I worry about is that those numbers grow, how do we manage our schools operationally?”

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The union representing Hamilton secondary school teachers also issued a call for vaccination of local education workers late last week, saying those workers should be classified as “high risk”.

“Additionally, we ask that those workers who work in special education sites and classrooms be prioritized due to the additional health and safety concerns that they face,” said Daryl Jerome, president of Teachers’ and Occasional Teachers’ Bargaining Unit OSSTF District 21 (Hamilton-Wentworth).

Despite the concerns expressed by Danko, Figueiredo, and Jerome, it’s unclear whether public health will move quickly to prioritize Hamilton education workers.

Dr. Elizabeth Richardson, Hamilton’s medical officer of health, said they’re having “active discussions” about who will be prioritized in Phase 2.

“There are many populations here in Hamilton that we want to do,” said Dr. Richardson during a media briefing on Tuesday.

“Teachers are part of that group as we move forward, and it’s a matter of looking at the vaccine supply we have coming in and how do we best sequence to minimize the impacts on all of our population.”

Read more: COVID-19 outbreak closes a Hamilton Mountain Catholic school, students to virtual learn

She also said no decisions have been made at this point about whether public health will call for Hamilton schools to be closed to in-person learning following the spring break, but said there are a lot of other impacts to consider if that route is taken.

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“This isn’t just a COVID-19 decision, this is a decision about what impacts do they have on schools, particularly on kids, particularly on those families that are also being disproportionately impacted by this entire situation,” said Dr. Richardson.

“We’re trying to respect both sides of that balance as we go forward and make sure that people could be prepared if we were to look at closing it down. And so we’ll continue to have those discussions as we look at the numbers over the next couple of days.”

Click to play video: 'Phase 2 of Ontario’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout begins with a focus on hot spots' Phase 2 of Ontario’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout begins with a focus on hot spots
Phase 2 of Ontario’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout begins with a focus on hot spots – Apr 6, 2021

Meanwhile, Ontario education minister Stephen Lecce issued a statement on Tuesday reiterating the provincial government’s stance that schools are safe and not contributing to spread of COVID-19.

“It is our firm belief that schools should be open for in-class learning, as they are critical to student mental health and safe, as confirmed by leading medical leaders in Ontario,” said Lecce in a statement.

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Seventy-four cases of COVID-19 have been reported across Hamilton’s public and Catholic boards since the beginning of April.

There are 14 schools or school-related COVID-19 outbreaks that are currently active in Hamilton, including two new ones reported Tuesday — one at St. Thomas More Catholic Secondary School and another at Mount Albion Elementary School, each involving two staff.

Hamilton’s Catholic board announced on Monday that Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Elementary School would be closed for in-person learning until April 19 amid an outbreak that has now infected a total of 13 people across eight cohorts.

Dr. J.E. Davey Elementary School reopened for in-person learning on Tuesday after closing amid a COVID-19 outbreak in late March.

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