Hamilton’s public school boards have now released their COVID-19 safety protocols amid a return for many to in-person learning next week and both insist “multiple layers of protection” will be implemented to protect students this fall.
The two chairs of the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) and the Catholic board (HWCDSB) in a media call last week say their goal is to “build a wall of protection around those who cannot be vaccinated.”
“It will support a safe return to school that will help our students mental, physical and social health and well-being,” HWDSB chair Dawn Danko said.
“And as we’ve heard, our schools are a reflection of our community and keeping cases low in Hamilton will be important to support keeping schools open and activities running for students.”
Most of the protocols follow Ontario’s COVID guidelines for school boards across the province which was released in early August.
A majority of public school students are expected to be returning to in-person learning on Sept. 8 with the HWDSB estimating only about 1,800 students will be using remote learning compared to last year’s 9,000.
About 300 secondary students have chosen remote learning so far for 2021-2022.
For the HWCDSB, about 1,000 students have opted for remote learning with about 600 at the secondary level.
Cohorting, screening, masking and hand hygiene are just some measures returning from last year’s school year with vaccinations a key addition this year to fight COVID-19.
Improvements in HVAC and air quality in city schools will also be somewhat new and improved thanks to government funding.
Other changes year over year will include the return of contact sports, extra-curricular activities with modifications, cohorts interacting outdoors, use of common spaces, and no requirement for wearing masks outdoors.
Catholic board chair Pat Daly believes the extra layer of vaccines and improved HVAC systems should offset some of the transmission that led to the numerous outbreaks that plagued the system in the fall and winter of last year.
“So I believe the parents can really be assured that schools are safe and that every single thing possible is to ensure that their children will be safe throughout the school year,” Daly said.
Here’s a look at a few of the common key layers of protection both boards have in place for 2021-2022:
The most significant difference year over year for schools amid the ongoing pandemic is the emergence of COVID-19 vaccines.
The city’s medical officer of health believes higher vaccination rates in the community, and not just in the school population, will be critical in avoiding another all out move to remote learning should multiple outbreaks occur.
Dr. Elizabeth Richardson said vaccination rates in schools will be key as public health monitors surges affecting the school system.
“Our absolute hope is that this doesn’t ever have to happen again,” Richardson said.
“You know, maybe it’s a transient dismissal of a cohort, as we’ve done before, a short term closure of a particular school, but we’re really hoping that anything more widespread isn’t necessary.”
In April 2020, Ontario returned students to virtual classrooms following the spring break after a massive surge in COVID-19 cases across the province.
At that time, Hamilton’s public schools reported 56 COVID cases combined affecting 16 schools across the city.
In the last two weeks of August, the boards and public health offered daily school based walk-in vaccination clinics at secondary schools in the hopes of increasing uptake among those aged 12 through 17.
Additional opportunities are being added during the Labour Day weekend with back to school walk-in clinics at CF Lime Ridge Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. and 1 to 3 p.m.
As of Sept. 1, over 76 per cent of the city’s youth 12 to 17 have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine while only 63.9 per cent have been fully vaccinated. Far below the city’s average of 72.7 per cent.
A new policy from the ministry of education is also requiring staff working with both public school boards to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination or to have regular rapid testing.
“Parents can be assured that all of the staff, all of the bus drivers, all the volunteers, trustees, contractors, and any regular visitors to our schools will either have received double vaccination or will be getting tested regularly,” HWCDSB chair Pat Daly said in media availability in August.
HWDSB chair Dawn Danko said the measures are an effort to do what they can to limit exposure of the coronavirus in those under 12 who cannot be vaccinated, in the hopes more students will opt for in-person learning over the remote option.
“I think that is a layer that will be very important to help avoid the cases coming into the schools,” Danko said.
“Ultimately, families do have to make their own decision about what’s right for them and their family.”
Isolation rules released by the province in August say fully-immunized, high-risk contacts of positive or likely COVID-19 cases don’t have to isolate or be dismissed from classes unless they have symptoms.
Symptomatic people are directed to isolate and get tested, but their return-to-school date depends on their vaccination status.
Vaccinated individuals with symptoms who receive a negative COVID-19 test result can return to school if their symptoms improve over 24 hours, or after 48 hours if they had gastrointestinal symptoms.
In late August, the province trimmed down the list of COVID-19 symptoms that would require children to stay home from school or daycare.
Runny nose, sore throat or difficulty swallowing, congested nose, headache, and extreme tiredness or muscle aches were removed from the screening tool.
The updated online screening tool now lists the five most common COVID symptoms which include fever and chills, cough or barking cough, shortness of breath, losing taste or smell and nausea, vomiting or diarrhea.
Ontario’s top doctor hinted at the changes in an Aug. 3 pandemic update saying the list would likely be narrowed after consultations with parents across the province.
“We did a lot of testing for very mild symptoms like runny nose and we found that we didn’t get a lot of positives at our population level,” Dr. Kieran Moore told an Aug. 3 news conference.
“The symptom list is smaller, so the requirement for testing should be fewer, and hopefully a percentage of tests that are positive would be higher, so less impact on families, less need to go get tested.”
Parents will be required to screen their children for COVID-19 symptoms everyday before they arrive at school and complete an attestation form to confirm their status.
The form can be completed digitally through the portals on both the HWDSB and HWCDSB websites. Hard copies can also be filled out as an alternative with arrangements available for drop offs through a contactless process.
Ventilation & Filtration
A number of World Health Organization (WHO) endorsed studies on the transmission of COVID-19 have proven that someone infected with the affliction can spread the virus by breathing out droplets.
Typically, larger droplets dispensed by an average human don’t travel great distances, but there are some infectious light aerosols that can stay buoyant in the air for a period of time.
Venting those aerosols out of a classroom or filtering them out can reduce the risk of COVID spread.
With that knowledge, close to $450 million in government funds were deployed in 2021 to help school boards across the province upgrade and add HVAC units to improve air quality in facilities that needed new systems.
The HWDSB invested in 1,039 HEPA units to comply with the ministry of education’s guidelines for ventilation. Kindergarten spaces, schools without mechanical ventilation and previous incomplete ventilation projects are the beneficiaries of units.
“So in terms of ventilation work at our schools these include inspections, filter changes, remediation to systems that need it and upgrade projects,” HWDSB chair Dawn Danko said.
New rooftop units and classroom ventilators were installed at 30 locations. HEPA units will run all day in classrooms occupied by students.
Physical Distancing and Masks
Masks for all students from kindergarten right through grade 12 will be required indoors with some allowance for exemptions due to health reasons. Physical distancing will also be mandatory indoors.
Interactions outdoors have changed somewhat year over year with allowances for high-contact sports and mixing of cohorts, however, public health are still discouraging physical contact (e.g., hugging, high fives, wrestling).
Visitors are required to wear a medical mask upon entry to a school.
Face coverings are mandatory for students in Grades 1 to 12 on school vehicles. Kindergarten students are encouraged to wear masks.
School vehicles can operate at full capacity if necessary, but students are encouraged to physical distance when the transport is not at capacity.
Isolation of Cohorts
At the elementary school level (Grade 8 and below), students will be cohorted for the full day and, when possible, have one teacher.
Unlike last year where cohorts had to stay between specific lines in a certain area when outside, the 2021-2022 guidance document allows for cohorts to mix outside so long as there is distancing.
“I think we’re going to go in and try to allow for a more normal recess experience outdoors, but also be really watching,” Danko said.
“If we see that there is increased transmission, there are increased cases, then we can default back to masks outside or lines on the field and keeping cohorts apart.”
Public health guidelines call for a cohort to be isolated should a case of COVID appear in that group. That would required the cohort to isolate at home.
At the secondary school level, administrators were told to keep timetables to no more than two courses at a time to “preserve the option of reverting to more restrictive measures.” School staff were encouraged to prioritize prerequisite courses needed for post-secondary institutions. It also said some boards can rotate four subjects over two weeks (two subjects a week).
Both boards are still awaiting more direction form the province on a testing protocols for those with a medical exemption, a human rights exemption, or have not gotten vaccinated for whatever reason.
Testing for those not vaccinated is expected to be twice every seven-days via a non-invasive test, according to Danko.
The chair hopes a pilot project for take-home COVID-19 tests will simplify the process.
“It sounds like we will be able to provide kits that people can do at home, and we need to figure out the logistics,” Danko told Global News.
“For one, collecting the data in a way that protects people’s privacy and two collecting the results of those rapid tests for those who are not vaccinated.”
The province is rolling out take home tests in the first week of the return, however Hamilton was not one of the 13 public health units selected for the pilot.
Unvaccinated students who fail screenings will have to isolate for 10 days until they produce a negative COVID test before returning to school.
© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.