There has been no shortage of information on COVID-19 when it comes to societal beliefs on its origins, intentions, motivations, vaccine conspiracies and benefits, impact on politics, economics, education, health & medical services, and science, amoung other elements in our communities. Within all those facets, separating facts from fiction has been a challenge, especially when using social media as a source. A scan of online exchanges also quickly reveals that the likelihood of converting an opinion on any side of the COVID-19 spectrum is highly unlikely as heels seem firmly ensconced in whatever has influenced that primary belief. There are, however, some indisputable facts that must be considered when looking at the somewhat loosely published return to school education plan in Ontario, Canada that seems to ignore some basic pandemic knowledge and data.
According to the Government of Ontario (Ontario.ca), as of August 6, 2021, there have been 551,678 cases and 9,932 COVID-19 deaths in Ontario. 19,764,199 Ontarians have been vaccinated and of that, 71.21 % have had their 1st dose and 62.42% are fully vaccinated from a pool of 24,045,831 delivered doses for an 82.2% consumption against vaccine availability. From an education perspective, the Government of Ontario last reported on July 5, 2021, their statistics for the conclusion of the school year. That report showed that there were 15,292 total cases, which accounts for 3% of all provincial cases in this school year. The breakdown of those cases included 11,462 students, 2,661 staff, and 1,169 remained unidentified. Considering that from April 19th through to June 30th schools were operating remotely, during which time there were 260 cases made up of 120 students and 140 staff (through on-site special needs students, staff, and school boards), that means most cases occurred in a short seven-month span at a rate of 1,600 per month. According to Public Health Ontario, the cumulative rate dating back to January 15, 2020, is much higher for children who make-up 18.7% (17 years old or younger) of the overall population, accounting for “10.8% of confirmed COVID-19 cases reported in Ontario.”
With two summer’s worth of data to compare and consider it provides further opportunity for consideration. On August 4, 2020, we had 91 cases (.62 cases per 100,00) and a 7-day average of 103 cases (.71 per 100,000), with 4 new deaths. A year later, on August 4, 2021, we had 139 cases (.95 cases per 100,000) and the 7-day average was 199 cases (1.37 per 100,000), with 11 new deaths. That’s 48 more cases, a higher 7-day average of 96, and 7 more deaths. Considering that we’ve had several months of vaccination, an upward trend in new cases in the summer of 2021 is consistent with that of summer 2020 around the same time and it’s important to remember that there is still 30-40% of the population unvaccinated. With 4 weeks to the start of school and a vaccination rate that isn’t near the 80-90% needed for desired herd immunity, coupled with an education plan that is thin on proven pandemic protocols, it’s hard to ignore concern amoung parents for unvaccinated children and other friends and family in the education system.
The exposure risk remains high for unvaccinated children who are under the age of 12 (Junior Kindergarten to Grade 6) as they made up approximately 92% of elementary school students in Ontario at an approximate population count of 1,131,656 from a total 1,425,145. While there has only been 1 reported death in children, there remains an unknown understanding of what long-term effects COVID-19 may have on them, which is compounded by the fact they are the largest asymptomatic (silent carriers and distributors of the virus) group at approximately 27.2%.
On August 3, 2021, the Government of Ontario released their back-to-school plan addressing COVID-19. Depending on what view you have of the pandemic and protective measures, it’s plausible to surmise that the plan seems to lack clarity or possible consideration for what is statistically known in Ontario or from the global community about next steps in battling a possible 4th wave. For instance, the vaccine has not been deemed a mandatory requirement for educators and so there is an instant breach of health security that allows for them to be a virus gateway into the school environment. While the plan leverages the use of masks indoors as students and teachers are grouped in cohorts, it falls short of ensuring the mixing of cohorts outdoors and during other activities with loose language like “encouraged” as it allows for close engagements to happen and unmasked while doing so. The further compromise through extra-curricular activity allows for "elementary and secondary health and physical education classes, including high and low-contact activities.” Logic seems to be further challenged as “Music programs are allowed indoors. Singing and playing wind instruments is allowed indoors with adequate ventilation and when physical distancing within a cohort is possible.” It seems there is little regard for a virus that according to the Government of Canada Prevention & Risk documentation, “spreads from an infected person to others through respiratory droplets and aerosols (smaller droplets) created when an infected person: talks, sings, shouts, coughs, or sneezes.” As a measure of helping the air quality, the Ontario Minister of Education has announced a bag of money to secure HEPA filters for classrooms, although it’s unclear what the requirement or effect of such units will be to mitigating how the virus is transmitted, especially given the relaxing of social distancing in the classroom and unchanged reduction in their size. While the plan is heavy with recommendations, it often defies logic as it potentially contradicts reasonable measures with ones that negate them.
While recommendations are published online by the Government of Ontario, it is clear that the plan remains incomplete as of August 8, 2021 through their own admission for the “Management of COVID-19 in schools” on the COVID-19: Health, safety and operational guidance for schools (2021-2022) as it reads “this section is forthcoming and will build on the “Operational guidance: COVID-19 management in schools” from the 2020-21 school year.“ Let that sink in - a key part of the plan is “forthcoming” with less than 4 weeks to the start of the school year, which is arguably inexcusable given almost two years’ worth of experience, knowledge, and data.
Regardless of where you sit on the beliefs of COVID-19, much of our society wants to see children back in school in as much of a normal environment as possible and there’s a way to do that by leveraging lessons learned that both protects the total health and well-being of students and all staff, using more logical and proven measures. There are avoidable gaps and waste in the plan that can render several measures ineffective and leaves exposure and risk unnecessarily high, while not addressing how it will handle outbreaks, student self-isolation cases, and possible closures.
Whatever the next steps are, you must feel for educators, parents, and students heading into this school year as they collectively, literally, and figuratively hold their breath to see where on the dart board this all lands.
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- COVID19-Ontario.CA: Case #s and Spread
- COVID19 Tracker Canada
- COVID19 Ontario Data
- COVID19 Cases In Schools and Child Care Centres
- COVID19 Health, Safety and Operational Guidance for Schools (2021-2022)
- Guide to Reopening Ontario’s Schools
- Management of COVID-19 in Schools
- CBC: We Probably Won’t Reach Herd Immunity Against COVID-19 Anytime Soon, but it’s OK, Experts Say
- Public Health Ontario COVID-19 Infection in Children: January 15, 2020 to March 11, 2021
- Government of Canada Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19): Prevention and Risks