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Hamilton’s public school board stops reporting COVID-19 cases amid return to remote learning

Hamilton's public school board has begun a two week remote learning period as of Jan. 5, 2021 on orders from the province. Don Mitchell / Global News

With changes in eligibility for PCR testing and move to online learning, one of Hamilton’s two public school boards is set to discontinue collecting and reporting COVID-19 case numbers.

At the forefront of the decision is Ontario’s Ministry of Education, which suggested on Jan. 1 that accurate data simply couldn’t be properly traced with the wild spread of the Omicron variant.

Instead, the province will rely on absentee data from schools and licensed child-care centres to continue a make shift process of identifying positive COVID cases.

Read more: Ontario families scramble as Omicron forces 2-week school closure

Hamilton Wentworth District School Board director of education Manny Figueiredo says from his perspective, he’s not sure how sustainable reporting is considering the resources schools and public health have been using to produce fresh numbers daily.

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“People don’t realize that behind the scenes that every time we have a confirmed case … there is a case management team that comes together and that team is the superintendent, the principal and all the cohort tracking lists that we require,” Figueiredo said.

“As the case counts started to go up, we wondered how long can we actually sustain this?”

The director is referring to the large case numbers for all of Ontario’s education and child care in 2021, which amassed over 8,000 reported infections, with just under 6,000 in elementary schools alone.

Despite all that effort, the move does have its critics, including the head of non-profit People for Education who characterized the move as giving up on where and how outbreaks occur in the system.

“It seems a little bit like throwing up your hands and going, ‘Oh well, we just can’t keep track of this. It’s too big,’ and that really feels like a problem,” Annie Kidder told 900 CHML’s Good Morning Hamilton.

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Since the return of in-person learning in September, both Hamilton’s public school boards combined have tracked 813 total cases among staff and students with the HWDSB accounting for 451.

To date, the process has essentially become a full time venture for some public health and education workers, according to the HWDSB.

“If they were being called at any point of the day to come to do case management to support the contact tracing … that was a full time job for our school administrators,” Figueiredo said.

In a letter to the minister of education, HWDSB chair Dawn Danko has urged the province to continue to tracking schools cases stating it was an “ethical responsibility” to keep guardians and frontline educators in the know.

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“We recognize that Hamilton Public Health Services staff do not have the capacity to complete contact tracing, as we have in the past,” said Danko.

“However, tracking and public reporting can be achieved through adequate supply of take-home PCR test kits or rapid antigen test kits, voluntary self-reporting of probable or test-confirmed cases, and absence tracking.”

A spokesperson for the Catholic School Board (HWCDSB) says the outlet has not yet made a decision on case reporting and is looking for guidance from the city’s public health department.

Hamilton's students begin pivot to online learning

Hamilton’s two public school boards have set schedules and the subject matter for the rollout of three models amid a return to remote learning beginning on Wednesday.

Both the Hamilton Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) and the Catholic Board (HWCDSB) are making the pivot just days after the Ontario government issued several new COVID-19 public health measures that includes moving schools online.

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Figueiredo says the good news is there are “playbooks” having been in the same circumstance in the first half of 2020.

“We heard from families who were planning for … two days of not being in school to now potentially two weeks,” Figueiredo told 900 CHML’s Hamilton Today.

“So we understand that frustration, and the good news is … it’s not like we haven’t done this before.

All publicly-funded and private schools in Ontario are moving to remote learning as of Jan. 5 until at least Jan. 17, subject to public health trends.

In the letter to parents Monday night, the HWDSB said the first day for elementary school students who had been learning in person during the fall will involve connecting to virtual classrooms and curriculums on Jan. 5.

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The day will entail instruction and the establishing of daily routines for remote learning.

“We do have to build a little bit of a ramp for all our elementary students in person,” Figueiredo said.

Read more: A list of the new COVID-19 measures that will take effect on Wednesday in Ontario

“Our staff have been working hard, but they’re working on a half day programming … to touch base to make sure that the parents have the technology that they need.”

Thursday will be a “full remote school day” providing schedules for families, reaching out to those who need a device and handing out paper packages for those unable to obtain devices.

The board is estimating that about 6,000 devices will need to be deployed to families who don’t have them.

The estimated 2,000 elementary students already learning online as of last semester will continue their program with “no change” starting Wednesday.

Read more: Hamilton-area hospitals reporting ‘unprecedented pressure,’ hundreds of staff in COVID isolation

Secondary students will begin their first full day on Wednesday with students learning their timetables and engaging in synchronous and independent asynchronous learning.

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Before- and after-school programs are on hold and are expected to reopen with the potential return to in-person in two weeks.

The HWCDSB didn’t release an itinerary for its remote learning launch, but is expected to follow similar protocols as the HWDSB.

The Catholic board is instructing parents in need of technology to reach out to their child’s school for help.

“So people have been working very, very hard over the weekend and right up until this morning to ensure that parents are well informed, staff are well informed, and students have the equipment necessary to learn,” HWCDSB chair Pat Daly told 900 CHML’s Good Morning Hamilton.

Read more: Hamilton-area hospitals reporting ‘unprecedented pressure,’ hundreds of staff in COVID isolation

The province is allowing some in-person instruction for students with special education needs deemed not compatible with remote learning.

During the 2020 stoppage, parents chose that model for about 300 students, according to the HWDSB.

“So we’re working through conversations and they have to be very personal conversations,” said Figueiredo.

“We have to figure out where that programing will be … maybe at the home school, but it might be in some congregated settings because of the numbers.”

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Part of the ministry of education’s latest turn to online learning includes in-person ‘targeted’ free emergency child care for school aged children of designated essential frontline health care workers.

The service is being provided by three city facilities, Today’s Family and Golfwood Day Care on the Mountain as well as Galbraith Day Care in Stoney Creek.

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