Ontario schools are safe — but prepare for outbreaks, chief medical officer of health says

A young students arrives for the first day of school at St. Margaret of Scotland Elementary School in Mississauga on Tuesday.

Kristin RushowyQueen’s Park Bureau
Maria SarrouhStaff Reporter

Tue., Sept. 7, 20214 min. read

Article was updated 4 hrs ago

Ontario schools are safe — but parents should be prepared for COVID-19 outbreaks and the possibility of curbing kids’ after-school activities if cases jump, says Ontario’s chief medical officer of health.

On Tuesday — as many students around the province began returning to in-person learning — Dr. Kieran Moore said he is “confident that the school setting itself is safe. We put in many precautions. We will see outbreaks, we will see activity in the schools, but they basically reflect what’s going on in the community.”

The caution came as several Ontario school boards reported their first cases of COVID-19 among staff and students.

The Toronto District School Board recorded one of its first confirmed cases of COVID-19 connected to a welcome event last week. The infected student came in contact with around 27 other people at an orientation event for incoming Grade 9 students at Riverdale Collegiate Institute on Aug. 30, according to a TDSB teacher who spoke to the Star on condition of anonymity so they could speak freely without fear of retribution.

“I think it strongly suggests that there will be cases and disruption to learning,” said the teacher, who was unsettled by the early case ahead of hundreds of students returning to school.

At the event, several cohorts of about 24 incoming Grade 9 students were toured around the school and attended talks, according to the teacher. The vaccination status of the infected student is unknown, the teacher added.

The institute’s principal Kenneth Harvey circulated an email to staff and the school community on Friday afternoon, four days after the event took place, stating Toronto public health had dismissed one cohort, one staff member and three student volunteers who were potentially exposed to the student “in an abundance of caution.”

In the email, Harvey writes staff and students are required to wear masks while at school and to practice physical distancing, as well as proper hand hygiene. While enhanced cleaning is conducted every day, the school has “made sure to conduct an enhanced cleaning in all affected areas of our school,” he said.

TDSB spokeperson Ryan Bird confirmed the case at Riverdale and said the board would be providing further COVID updates throughout the week.

The York Region District School Board has recorded five cases at Ellen Fairclough Public School. According to York Region Public Health, 10 other schools are under surveillance following one confirmed case. Bill Crothers Secondary School is also under surveillance following two confirmed cases.

The Kenora Catholic District School Board is reporting one confirmed case and one closed classroom at Pope John Paul II School.

COVID infections discovered at schools don’t necessarily indicate transmission occurred at the educational institution; exposure could have happened within the community.

Dr. Anna Banerji, a pediatric infectious disease specialist and faculty lead of Indigenous and refugee health at the University of Toronto, said the early cases are a signal of what’s to come and questions whether schools have done enough to protect families. She said having secondary school class sizes consisting of 30-plus kids “is not safe.”

“I expect there’s going to be more outbreaks in schools…I think it’s going to be a very difficult year,” Banerji said. “School boards or the government aren’t understanding the importance of physical distancing and making sure there’s adequate ventilation.”

She added “it’ll be much more complicated” to keep COVID transmission in check at schools, as more children begin showing symptoms of common viruses like influenza and Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV).

“The main thing is keeping sick kids at home…if someone has a new onset of symptoms, they should be out of the pool,” Banerji said. Ontario’s new school screening guidelines for COVID exclude runny noses and headaches. “Taking away all these symptoms, you’re going to miss a lot of COVID.”

Moore defended the decision, saying that a runny nose was removed from the list of COVID-19 symptoms because data on a look at 100 kids found that just one tested positive.

“We thought that was an undue burden for parents to try to find one child to test 99,” Moore said. “The vast majority of them would have had an allergy or rhinovirus, which is very typical this time of year, and it would have been an undue burden on parents and schools and the testing capacity of the province. So given that low positivity of just the one symptom of runny nose, we’ve excluded it.”

Education Minister Stephen Lecce told that Star the province’s commitment “is to minimize disruption and maximize safety to keep children in schools so they can learn,” which includes mandatory masking and improved ventilation.

Ontario students have missed out on in-person learning for 26 weeks since the pandemic began a year and a half ago — more than any others in the country.

While teachers and school staff are being urged to get their COVID vaccine, those who opt not to will have to undergo twice-weekly rapid tests. The Toronto District School Board and advocacy group People for Education have also been urging the province to add the vaccine to the list of mandatory shots for eligible Ontario students.

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Schools low risk for COVID transmission: Top doc

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Provincial data shows there were 581 new cases on Monday

Antonella Artuso Sep 07, 2021  •  6 hours ago  •  1 minute read  •  40 Comments

Ontario's chief medical officer of health, Dr. Kieran Moore.
Ontario’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Kieran Moore. Postmedia Network

Ontario schools are a “low-risk environment” for COVID-19, Chief Medical Officer Dr. Kieran Moore said as students in Toronto prepared to head back to class Thursday.

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In 87% of cases where the virus spreads in school-aged children, the infection occurred in the community, he said.

About 7% of cases are linked to school transmission and a small portion occur through contact in places like pre- and after-school programs and daycares, he said.

“So, I am confident that the school setting itself is safe,” Moore said Tuesday. “We will see outbreaks, we will see activity in the schools, but they basically reflect what’s coming on in the community.”

Ontario reported 564 new cases of COVID-19 Tuesday and an additional three deaths.

Hospitals were treating 295 patients for COVID-19, including 190 in intensive care, Moore said.

The vaccination rate was up — 83.7% of eligible Ontarians have had at least a first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and 77.2% are fully vaccinated.

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Moore said the vaccination rate needs to climb higher as data obtained from the science advisory table shows the unvaccinated are 24 more times likely than the fully vaccinated to end up in hospital and 43 times more likely to be need intensive care.

“When you get hospitalized, it’s because your lungs are filling up with fluid, you can’t get oxygen into your air stream, and you’re fighting for air,” Moore said. “If you’re getting admitted to the intensive care unit, it’s because you cannot breathe on your own anymore.”

Public health experts estimate 63,000 cases of COVID-19 have been prevented in Ontario due to vaccinations, he said.

“After a long weekend like this, we normally do see the increase in cases of COVID-19 later in the week,” Moore said. “I think once people realize this virus isn’t going away — the risk will continue throughout the fall and into the winter — that alone should be an incentive to come forward and get protected.

aartuso@postmedia.com

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‘This virus isn’t going away’: Top doctor warns Ontario to brace for surge in new COVID-19 cases

Ontario’s vaccination rate slowed over the Labour Day weekend and needs to ramp back up to provide better protection against COVID-19, says chief medical officer Dr. Kieran Moore.

After hitting a recent high of almost 46,000 shots Friday — two days after Premier Doug Ford announced a proof-of-vaccination system for entry into gyms, theatres, indoor restaurant dining and more — the vaccination rate slowed to just over 14,000 on Monday.

Vaccinations were bound to drop off over the long weekend, Moore said during his weekly briefing on Tuesday.

“We are still making slow progress,” he said on COVID-19 shots, noting it will take 60 days at the current pace to get 90 per cent of eligible Ontarians fully vaccinated. He also warned a post-holiday surge in infections is expected within days.

“We hope that this week they’ll come back with a renewed interest in being immunized, especially with the verification process starting Sept. 22,” Moore added. “I think once people realize this virus isn’t going away, (that) the risk will continue throughout the fall and into the winter, that alone should be an incentive to come forward and get protected.”

Moore said the regional health unit in Windsor-Essex has begun imposing selective public health measures — such as earlier bar closings and banning dancing — to stem a high infection rate after several outbreaks.

Ontario now has just over 77 per cent of eligible residents over age 12 with two doses.

The increase in vaccinations has been “almost entirely” in Ontarians aged 18 to 59 since Ford announced that people will need to be at least 14 days past their second dose for entry into a host of non-essential businesses and venues, Moore said.

“The younger the group, the larger the relative increase.”

Public Health Ontario calculates that vaccines have prevented an estimated 63,000 cases of COVID-19 among those 18 and older, and prevented about 4,200 “severe outcomes such as hospitalization and death” in Ontarians over 70.

The science table advising Ford said last week that the province needs to boost full-vaccination levels as quickly as possible to “substantially above” 85 per cent to avoid the potential need for more lockdowns and to avoid overwhelmed hospital intensive care units.

Moore has set an “aspirational goal” of 90 per cent to offset the highly contagious Delta strain spreading mostly in the unvaccinated.

“In the face of the Delta variant, we need to be humble, be flexible and be prepared to react quickly to minimize the transmission until more of us are vaccinated. We have been preparing with all our partners over the summer for the anticipated surge in cases,” Moore added at the briefing.

Ontario reported 564 new cases Tuesday but the seven-day average remains at 747, about six times higher than a year ago. There were 245 people in hospital for COVID-19, including 192 in intensive care with 113 of them on ventilators to breathe — an increase of eight.

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Top doctor says schools are safe as Ontario reports 1,145 new COVID-19 cases

Ontario’s chief public health officer says province has made “incredible strides” in order to send students back to classrooms safely this year.

Students across Ontario are heading back to physical classrooms this week – but concerns are lingering about whether safety preparations are up to the task of keeping infections at a minimum. (CBC/Radio-Canada)

Ontario’s school preparation plan is being put to the test as students in Ontario head back to class this week. 

“This is an exciting time,” said Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Kieran Moore at a news conference as the school year began Tuesday for.children in some parts of the province.

“We have made incredible strides as a province to confidently get our children back in the classroom.” 

Meanwhile, Ontario reported an additional 1,145 cases of COVID-19 from over the last two days.

Because of the Labour Day long weekend, the province published two days worth of data on Tuesday. A total of 581 new COVID-19 cases were reported on Monday with another 564 on Tuesday.

​Of the 581 cases reported on Monday with a known vaccination status:

  • 351, or 60.4 per cent, were in unvaccinated people.
  • 64, or 11 per cent, had a single dose.
  • 124, or 21.3 per cent, had two doses.

Of the 564 cases reported on Tuesday with a known vaccination status:

  • 339, or 6​0.1​ per cent, were in unvaccinated people.
  • 37, or ​6.5 per cent, had a single dose.
  • 130, or 23 per cent, had two doses.

Most boards reopen Tuesday

Classes resumed today in a number of school boards, including the Bluewater District School Board, the District School Board of Niagara and the Halton District School Board.

Some other boards — including the largest, the Toronto District School Board — will start classes on Thursday.

This will be the third school year in which classes are affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ontario’s Ministry of Education has sent guidelines to schools in a bid to slow the spread of the virus, which include requirements that staff and students self-screen for COVID-19 each day and wear masks indoors.

All schools without mechanical ventilation systems must be equipped with a standalone HEPA unit, according to an announcement made by the government last month. 

Masked students are back in the classroom at Franco-Cité Catholic High School in Ottawa. (CBC/Radio-Canada)

Vaccination is not mandatory for teachers or eligible students under Ontario’s back-to-school plan, which also allows for extracurricular activities and field trips to resume.

Unvaccinated Ontario teachers and school staff will need to be tested for COVID-19 twice per week. 

The ministry has required that all boards offer a remote learning option for students who don’t feel comfortable in the classroom due to the pandemic.

The government’s reopening plan was criticized by opposition parties and some parents when it was released last month.  

The Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario (ETFO) was also critical, calling the plan “incomplete and inadequate.”

COVID-19 symptom list changed

The province recently removed “runny nose” and “headache” from the list of COVID-19 symptoms that require children to stay home from school and get tested for COVID-19.

On Tuesday, Moore said those symptoms were excluded because it led to a small number of positive COVID-19 tests and resulted in an “undue burden” for parents. 

“We thought from a patient perspective and from a parent perspective that this was the best solution,” he said, adding that children experiencing those symptoms should still stay home until their symptoms resolve. 

Why Ontario changed the list of COVID-19 symptoms that require students to stay home

Here’s why Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Kieran Moore said “runny nose” and “headache” were recently removed from the list of COVID-19 symptoms that require children to stay home from school and get tested for the virus. 1:17

Moore also said he hopes there will be an update soon on when children aged five to 11 can be vaccinated, saying “we may get information in early winter for a possible rollout for that population.” 

Here are some key pandemic indicators and figures for Tuesday from the Ministry of Health’s daily provincial update:

Seven-day average of daily cases: 747.

Tests completed: 17,118.

Provincewide test positivity rate: 3.4 per cent.

Active cases: 6,272.

Patients in ICU with COVID-related illnesses: 165, with 113 needing a ventilator to breathe.

Deaths: Five more deaths, pushing the death toll to 9,553.

Vaccinations: 14,391 doses of COVID-19 vaccine were administered by public health units on Monday. About 77.2 per cent of eligible Ontarians, or those aged 12 and older, have now had two doses. That represents 68.3 per cent of the province’s total population.

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