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Local school-board officials grateful for delayed in-person return to school

Officials from both the Avon Maitland and Huron-Perth Catholic district school boards are confident area schools will be ready to safely and smoothly welcome students back for in-person learning on Jan. 5.

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Though there is still quite a bit of work to be done before students return to school on Jan. 5, officials at both of Huron-Perth’s school boards are thankful for the extra time to prepare.

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On Thursday, Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Kieran Moore, announced the province will delay students’ return to in-person learning by two days to provide schools extra time to implement a number of new safety measures.

“It’s good news for everybody that, for one, we’re coming back in person. I think that’s excellent news for students and for families. I think it’s the place they need to be,” said Chris Roehrig, director of education for the Huron-Perth Catholic District School Board. “And it also gives us a couple of days to get some of the changes that are coming down in place.

“There are a substantial number of changes to practices and policies that have to happen, and given the crunch of coming back at the start of the new year, having that extra day or two to get everything ready has been really great.”

Those changes include:

  • Updating the COVID-19 school and child-care screener ahead of the return to school on Jan. 5 and asking students, parents and staff for rigorous screening and monitoring of symptoms.
  • Providing non-fit-tested N95 masks for staff in schools and licensed child care settings as an optional alternative to medical/surgical masks, and additional supply of high-quality three-ply cloth masks that are strongly encouraged and free for students and children in January.
  • Deploying an additional 3,000 standalone HEPA filter units to school boards, building on the existing 70,000 HEPA filter units and ventilation devices already in schools.
  • Continuing PCR testing eligibility for symptomatic elementary and secondary students, education staff and participating private and First Nation operated schools who have received a PCR self-collection kit through their school.
  • Starting in January, temporarily permitting only low-contact indoor sports and safe extra-curricular activities.
  • Updating COVID-19 reporting requirements for school boards and child care in January.
  • Supporting the projected hiring of over 2,000 staff, funded by a $304 million allocation for second semester that includes additional teachers, custodians and mental-health workers.

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While both Roehrig and Avon Maitland District School Board director of education Lisa Walsh said some of those changes, like the new masks for staff and students and the new HEPA filters, will take time to be delivered and implemented in schools across the province, the extra two days will allow the school boards to train staff on the new regulations and protocols and ensure a safe and smooth return to school for students on Wednesday.

“There’s a lot of decisions to make,” Walsh said. “We’re thinking about not just the immediate future of coming back next week, but if this trend continues, what that will mean for decisions that we’ve previously made. For example, we haven’t heard anything yet about semester two, and we were (supposed to), along with boards across the province, go back to four periods a day.

“So … there’s a lot of decisions yet to be considered that will take more than the two days. The two days are really to get schools ready and welcoming and safe, and review all the new safety protocols, retrain staff and be ready to go.”

On top of all that, Roehrig and Walsh said the school boards, like those across the province and beyond, are also trying to prepare for staffing shortages related to the continued Omicron-drive surge of COVID-19 cases in Huron-Perth.

Facing the prospect of teachers and other school staff being unable to work in person because they’ve either tested positive for COVID-19, are experiencing symptoms and are awaiting test results or are at high risk of having been exposed to the virus, the school boards are fully expecting and preparing for the potential for temporarily dismissing student bubbles or even entire classrooms.

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“Given that the new screening tool is likely to be significantly more sensitive than it has been recently, we are expecting an increase in the number of student absences as well as staff absences,” Roehrig said. “Because of the inability to (bring in) occasional staff to back up staff that will be absent, that will mean that there will likely be an increase in the number of student dismissals and cohort dismissals.”

But whether students and staff are out of school temporarily to isolate at home or there is a need at some point down the road to return to virtual learning full time, Roehrig and Walsh said schools are prepared to quickly pivot to virtual learning or come up with other creative solutions that will keep any student and staff absences from interrupting the flow of learning.

“We truly believe that kids are best served in schools, not only academically, but socially and emotionally,” Walsh said. “We know that mental health and wellbeing has been a huge challenge for many students and staff. … And we do know that students do better when they’re with their peers and their teachers. We also know that the transmission of COVID-19 has not happened from within schools, it’s from the community into the schools.

“So we’re putting these extra measures in place and making sure the school is a safe place for the students to be, but we need our parents, our partners and our community members to help support us with the daily screening. Daily screening is the number-one thing that we need people to be super diligent about. If they have any symptoms, or if they’re feeling unwell, or if they’ve been around someone who has COVID-19, they really need to stay home and protect the school environment so we can keep the schools open for kids.”

The Province of Ontario will also soon be updating COVID-19 case, contact and outbreak management guidance across all sectors to better address the rate at which the Omicron variant is quickly spreading.

As Huron Perth public health officials don’t yet have updated guidance for school-associated cases, the health unit is directing the public to visit covid-19.ontario.ca/exposed for information on what to do if they have COVID-19 symptoms or have been exposed to someone with the virus.

gsimmons@postmedia.com

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