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COVID-19: Hamilton school board execs ‘pleased’ there’s some transparency with absenteeism

Hamilton Wentworth District School Board education director Manny Figueiredo during a media op at Shannen Koostachin Elementary school in August 2020. Global News

Ontario’s decision to notify families when 30 per cent of a school is absent amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is “better than nothing,” according to an exec with Hamilton’s public school board.

Hamilton Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) director of education Manny Figueiredo told 900 CHML’s Hamilton Today he’s pleased the province’s announcement about a return to in-person learning on Jan. 17 offered some level of transparency when a local school has a potential flurry of COVID cases.

“To go from very intense, detailed tracking to nothing … it doesn’t build public confidence and even our school leaders, were very worried about this,” Figueiredo said.

Read more: Ontario students, staff to each get 2 rapid COVID tests when schools restart in person

“In the absence of nothing, we’re left holding that towards wondering what we say to parents. So I think it’s better than nothing.”

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Last week, the director told Global News previous reporting models for public schools were simply not sustainable based on the number of staff needed daily to aid public health with contact tracing cases.

However, the ministry of education’s plan will not be confirming whether the absences are due to COVID.

Schools are now expected to report daily staff absences to local public health units to monitor disruptions and rapid tests will be issued to both students and staff if they develop COVID-19 symptoms.

Figueiredo says when the board will get their allotment of the 3.9 million tests promised is “the real question,” as is when their promised allotment of three-ply cloth masks for students will be received.

“We were told that our board will receive them Monday, so just receiving them centrally and getting them out to every school … it’s going to take time,” said Figueiredo.

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“They won’t be there Monday.”

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath said the government’s announcement was not detailed enough to “inspire confidence for families.”

The Hamilton MPP said the rapid test plan will not help prevent infections and that the 30-per cent absenteeism notice doesn’t give parents a clear picture of what to do should they be faced with it.

“I don’t know what the 30 per cent is supposed to provide in terms of an understanding for parents to act or not act on decisions that they’ve made about their kids being in school,” said Horwath.

HWDSB Chair Dawn Danko said the move is “a step in the right” direction but doesn’t believe it’s helpful since a school has to reach such a “significant number” before letting the public know.

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However, boards will be allowed to adopt additional reporting measures in conjunction with local health units.

“We did confirm with the minister yesterday … additional reporting measures that are above this, that would exceed this, this benchmark,” Danko said.

“I certainly will be advocating for that on our board meeting on Monday.”

Anticipating staff will have to enter some isolation at various times following a return while the highly-transmissible Omicron variant surges across Ontario, the ministry hopes to mitigate shortages through remote days, combining classes, implementing advanced cohorting rules and using teacher candidates.

Read more: Ontario to launch in-school COVID vaccine clinics as students, teachers head back to class

Although happy to see students coming back, Figueiredo says the real challenge going forward will be the risk of contracting COVID versus the risks around the well-being of students.

“The question I would leave, if … education is an essential service, what would it look like to resource that essential service?” Figueiredo said.

The province is also expected to run more school-based vaccination clinics to increase the rate for students aged five to 11.

As of Wednesday, four per cent of children in that age range in Ontario had received two vaccine doses and 47 per cent have had at least one shot.

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During Monday’s board of health meeting, Hamilton public health revealed vaccinations in that age group have been slowing in the city.

The city’s program manager said doses had been going into children’s arms at a rate of about 650 per day betwen late November and early January.

Since then, first dose administration has slowed to about 200 doses per day.

As of Tuesday, 42 per cent of the city’s residents aged five to 11 have at least one dose while about six per cent have two.

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