TDSB releases details of its plan for in-person learning ahead of Monday's return
The Toronto District School Board has released some details about its plan for Monday's return to in-person learning, including how it will report positive COVID-19 cases in classrooms.
In a post on its website Thursday evening, the TDSB said when schools become aware of a PCR or rapid antigen test confirmed case, only classes directly impacted will be notified.
"As the Ministry of Education has stated that classes will no longer be dismissed as a result of a case of COVID-19, that guidance will no longer be provided by the school. Instead, parents/guardians and/or students will review the daily COVID-19 screening tool to determine if they are permitted to return to school," wrote Colleen Russell-Rawlins, TDSB's director of education.
"While individual classes will continue to be provided with COVID-19 case information, the COVID-19 Advisories page on the TDSB website will no longer be updated," the board said. The page previously listed active confirmed cases and resolved cases among students and staff at its schools.
On Wednesday, Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce provided a few more details about what parents can expect next week when children return to the classroom for the first time since the winter break.
He confirmed that schools will not be required to notify parents directly about COVID-19 cases in the classroom but would alert parents when about 30 per cent of the students and staff in a school are absent on a given day. The province also said that starting Jan. 24, parents will be able to access data on the absentee rate in their child's school.
On reporting absences, the TDSB said it is consulting with Toronto Public Health whether lowering the threshold is more appropriate.
"We want to make sure we are being as transparent as possible, so we are looking aside from the 30 per cent notification, how can we let families know what's going on in classrooms and schools. So, we are in the middle of finalizing our own plans," TDSB spokesperson Ryan Bird told CP24 on Thursday morning.
"PCR testing is essentially being phased out on a school level in replacement of rapid antigen tests. What's the availability of those on a frequent basis? So, we want to make sure we can provide that accurate information when we hear about confirmed cases. But then, what do we do when we hear about symptomatic cases? How do we make sure we are being open but not telling everyone about a runny nose in a classroom? It is a little bit more complex than it would appear."
The province has promised to give each student in Ontario schools two rapid antigen tests upon their return to in-person learning and more tests will be provided on an "as-needed" basis when the province secures additional supply. PCR testing is not available to all students and will be limited to those experiencing significant symptoms while in class. The remaining supply of about 200,000 PCR self-collection kits at schools will not be replenished when they run out, the province's chief medical officer of health confirmed Wednesday.
The TDSB confirmed that elementary students and staff and high school staff will receive rapid antigen tests when they return next week. Meanwhile, secondary school students will be provided with the tests "when additional supplies are provided by the Ministry later in the week."
All students will also get high quality, three-ply cloth masks to be worn while inside buildings.
The TDSB noted that they are also receiving 300 additional HEPA units from the province that will supplement the more than 16,000 units that are already installed in all of its occupied learning spaces.
For elementary students who will choose to continue virtual learning, the TDSB said simultaneous (live) learning with those attending in-person classes will not be available. However, it remains an option for secondary school students.
"While this will depend on unique circumstances at each school, physical distancing will be maximized and students will eat at different times, where possible," the TDSB said on school lunches.
The board also confirmed that all in-person extra-curricular activities that involve mixing of cohorts, singing and use of wind instruments will be paused temporarily.
Meanwhile, Bird said the board is bracing for high rates of absenteeism due to staff experiencing symptoms or being close contacts of positive cases.
"When it comes overall to staffing shortages, we are looking at strategies right now to determine exactly how we do that," he said.
"It is hard to determine when you have nearly 600 sites how these shortages will impact the system on a school-level. It may be necessary for operational reasons to close a class, to close a school. We really don't know yet until we are in it quite frankly."
Operational direction from the Ministry of Education stated schools can institute virtual learning days or collapse class cohorts together in situations where large numbers of staff are absent, but they will first be required to access pools of retired education staff and teacher trainees to fill gaps.
Brendan Browne, the director of education for the Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB), also said schools within the TCDSB are planning to go "above and beyond" what the province requires in terms of communicating positive cases to parents.
"We do recognize that parents really want to know, so what we are taking a look at is when there is a confirmed case that's reported to the principal that we will let that cohort know so that classroom knows as a courtesy to try to make sure parents are aware," he told CP24.
He said he feels confident that teachers have a sufficient supply of N95 masks, and each school will have HEPA filters or upgraded ventilation systems in every occupied classroom.
Trustees with the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board sent an open letter to Lecce this week outlining their "grave concern, disappointment, and frustration" with the changes to provincial protocols, particularly the decision to discontinue COVID-19 reporting and the dismissal of students and staff when a positive case has been identified.
"This is a concern that all trustees are hearing daily from our parents/guardians who are angry, frustrated, and more apprehensive than ever to send their children to school," the letter read.
They slammed the province over a lack of transparency and consultation with school boards, for failing to provide equitable access to test kits and N95 masks for students, and for neglecting to provide adequate funding for ventilation and air quality improvements.
The province is providing millions of N95 masks to education and child-care staff but not to students. The ministry has said it will send four million "high quality three-ply masks" to students attending in-person learning across Ontario. In addition to the 70,000 HEPA filter units previously sent out to schools, the province has noted that it is redeploying 3,000 additional standalone units to schools ahead of Monday's return.
"Reverting to the previous case and contact management system, including transparent reporting of known positive COVID-19 cases in schools and sharing this information in accordance with applicable privacy laws with parents/guardians as per the previous established protocol, would go a long way toward regaining the trust of our community," the letter from the trustees read.
"We implore the province, as a first step, to provide access to medical grade masks or N95 masks for all students and education staff as noted above, provide an adequate number of test kits for each student and education staff member to test at home for COVID-19, as well as reconstitute the reporting and management system that was in place and to consult with stakeholders on these and other important matters affecting the health and safety of our students and staff as indicated, moving forward."