‘No, not at all’: 27% of all schools in Peel’s two main boards have COVID but top doctor not planning shutdowns
Students learning in-person in Peel take risks every day, as the threat of hidden dangers in their communities multiplies constantly.
About 27 percent of all schools in its two major boards have at least one active case of COVID-19. Figures collected at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday show the Peel District School Board (PDSB) had 96 cases spread between 68 schools, averaging 1.4 cases per COVID-19 positive school. The Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board (DPCDSB), which operates roughly 100 fewer schools than PDSB, has 70 cases between 41 schools, averaging 1.7 cases for each infected school.
The rate of schools with positive cases is almost identical between the two boards, with 26 percent of PDSB schools reporting at least one case, compared to 27 percent of DPCDSB institutions. These numbers reflect the wide spread of the novel coronavirus through communities in Brampton and Mississauga.
Since last Friday, cases in Peel have been particularly high. The daily numbers have ranged between a peak of 289 (the highest number yet) on Sunday to a low of 169 on Tuesday, according to figures shared by Health Minister Christine Elliott. The unprecedented case counts come as the novel coronavirus enters more schools through community spread and are a concern in classrooms where distancing is significantly harder.
Wednesday’s total of 109 COVID-19 positive schools is an increase over numbers recorded last week. A count by The Pointer on October 20 found 97 schools in the two boards with cases in Peel, up from 63 schools a week-and-half before.
These numbers include several schools suffering further cases after earlier ones had been reported. Some schools have now returned to the COVID advisory list as new student-infections are determined. Jean Augustine Secondary School, for example, currently has four active cases of COVID-19, but previously had a single case in September which had been resolved.
The growing figures have spooked parents and students alike.
Data release by PDSB on October 16 showed children heading for home. Elementary students, already studying online in large numbers, increased their remote learning enrollment from roughly 49 percent to 56.8 percent of all students, ahead of a new quadmester starting November 14.
Many high schoolers, who were previously learning largely in person, have decided they don’t like what they’re seeing. Only 26.4 percent of PDSB’s secondary school students were studying at home at the beginning of the year, and now 44.6 percent will take notes from the safety of a laptop or tablet screen when recent decisions to switch take effect.
Despite enhanced health and safety measures to protect students, many parents have opted to keep their child at home for online learning.
The large exit of high school students created a headache for administrators, with PDSB forced to wind up its online school, which will no longer operate. High schoolers will soon ghost into classrooms their peers are learning from in-person, meaning teachers are faced with the onerous task of handling virtual and in-person learning simultaneously.
In the face of increasing school cases, a PDSB spokesperson told The Pointer the board remains confident in its procedures.
“While there has been an increase in confirmed cases in schools, there have been no school closures to date, which shows the enhanced health and safety measures in place are helping to contain and reduce the spread of COVID-19,” they said. “We have not been asked by Peel Public Health to change any routines, and we will continue to work in partnership with them to ensure the health and safety of staff and students.”
Peel Public Health has declared several outbreaks at schools in Peel, including the brief closure of one DPCDSB school. Recently, Ontario Health hosted a pop-up testing centre at St. André Bessette Catholic Elementary School in Brampton after an outbreak was declared and transmission took place in the school. DPCDSB currently lists one, Father Francis McSpiritt Catholic School in Brampton, that has seven closed classrooms, but the school remains open. St. André Bessette has six closed classrooms but the school remains open. Twelve other schools in the board, according to its website, have multiple classrooms closed but all schools remain open.
When asked about the rising number of COVID-19 cases in Peel schools, chief medical officer Lawrence Loh, said he was not considering closing down any schools, but offered no further explanation.
“DPCDSB has worked collaboratively with Peel Public Health to proactively introduce automatic dismissals in schools starting in early October,” a spokesperson for the Catholic board told The Pointer. “We did this to try to prevent any COVID-19 acquired from outside sources from spreading to others inside our school community. A cohort is automatically dismissed or sent home to isolate when a positive test is received. Students and staff remain at home in isolation while Peel Public Health investigates. They only return to the school setting once the risk of transmission related to that positive case has passed.”
The head of Peel Public Health, Dr. Lawrence Loh, didn’t offer as many details on the topic as the school boards.
During a Wednesday press conference in Mississauga, held virtually, The Pointer laid out the concerning COVID-19 reality in schools across Peel to Loh.
“No, not at all,” he responded, when asked if he’s considering closing down more schools or even all in-class learning.
Loh did not explain to parents how schools remain safe, what measures were being taken in the face of a surging second wave or the epidemiology around school cases that justifies keeping them open, despite meeting the threshold of an outbreak.
The last one is a question that is top of mind for many parents and students across Brampton and Mississauga.
The PDSB includes the following information on its website, regarding provincial guidelines for closures: “An outbreak in a school is defined as two or more lab-confirmed COVID-19 cases in students and/or staff in a school with an epidemiological link, within a 14-day period, where at least one case could have reasonably acquired their infection in the school (including transportation and before-or-after-school care). However, even though an outbreak may be declared in the school, Peel Public Health will assist in determining which cohort(s) may be sent home or if a partial or full school closure is required based on the scope of the outbreak. Please note, there may be variability in scenarios based on local context and epidemiology, and the information...is intended as guidance only.”
The guidelines make clear that Loh has discretion when determining whether or not a classroom or school should be shut down.
He did not address a new provincial funding announcement Wednesday which was earmarked to improve safety in schools. At Queen’s Park, the Province announced more than $1 billion, in partnership with the federal government, to help make spaces COVID-19 safe. It includes up to $700 million specifically for schools.
View COVID-19 Map of Peel Schools in a full screen map
“According to the Chief Medical Officer of Health, the reopening of schools has been safe, supported by the most comprehensive safety protocol and largest provincial investment in Canada,” Education Minister Stephen Lecce said in a media release. “We are taking a major step forward by investing further in the safety of our schools, including action to improve air quality and renovate schools, so all students remain safe through this pandemic."
Exactly how much is coming to Peel or how it will be used is currently unclear. If Peel Public Health has made recommendations to either of the region’s school boards about changes to ventilation or other retrofitting proposals, those considerations have not been made public.
Parents in Peel who opted to switch their children to at-home learning registered before the recent jump in COVID cases. If the viral spread in the region continues to challenge the local public health team’s ability to control it, more students will likely be looking to remain home.
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