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Last summer as schools in Ontario were preparing to reopen, the Department of Education penned a memo to school officials highlighting COVID testing as critical to classroom safety

Ontario will expand public health capacity to “test, track and support” anyone in the school community who may be COVID positive and enable “extensive surveillance testing,” according to a draft of the memo never seen by the public and received from the star through freedom of information legislation

“There will be a proportional investment in laboratory capacity to ensure timely processing of the tests,” says the memo

The memo is one of several documents from the Department of Internal Affairs related to Ontario’s back-to-school plan, listing safety proposals that have either been abandoned or recalled, along with other changes to the department’s guidance during the summer months, particularly those related to class size, Critics say the province has repeatedly moved the target posts on its school schedule to ease security measures at a time when COVID rates were low in the community

“It looks like they handled a lot of things originally, but what they ultimately implemented was” Plan Lite “” You know, let’s take it, but massage it in such a way that it’s not that strict and that not that is expensive, “said Andrea Grebenc, Chair of the Halton District Schools Board,” It’s frustrating to see things get watered down “

The projected surge in demand for COVID tests – especially from students and teachers – flooded the testing system in Ontario as schools reopened last fall, with many families waiting for tests and hours in September before the province revised their testing criteria several days for results

It wasn’t until late November that the province began surveillance testing for asymptomatic individuals in schools – a pilot program launched in four hardest hit regions. By then, the community’s spread got out of control in many parts of southern Ontario

Speaking to reporters at Queen’s Park in January 8 After the province extended the closure of elementary schools in southern Ontario, Education Secretary Stephen Lecce pledged to increase classroom safety in light of “increasing community transmission”

“We have to develop our plan further, as we have done in March until today,” said Lecce

A spokesman for Minister Lecce did not directly answer questions about the documents In a statement, Caitlin Clark, Ontario said “(leads) the nation in the COVID-19 school to reopen funding”

“By following the recommendations of the Chief Medical Officer of Health, schools in this province have the strictest and most comprehensive safety protocols that have protected our students and educational staff,” she said

The Star received over 450 pages of sticky notes, memos and reports on schools reopening sent to Minister Lecce’s office by the Deputy Minister from June to September The FOI press release contained early drafts of the Ministry’s reopening plans, drafts a memo that appears to have never been sent and a guidance document marked “confidential” ”

Ashleigh Tuite, an epidemiologist from the University of Toronto, reviewed the documents, which included suggestions for safety measures that did not apply to testing, symptom screening, and class sizes

“Given where we are right now, it’s hard to look back and think about possible alternate universes where we might have done all of these recommended things,” Tuite said. “It’s like we have these junction points and we have chosen the wrong path ”

Ten months after the pandemic, there is still significant debate about the role schools play in spreading the community, also because children with COVID often show mild symptoms or show no signs of infection.This debate has grown in the face of rising COVID – Community rates and concerns about a contagious new variant of the virus first discovered in the United States heightened

Dr Janine McCready, an infectious disease doctor at Michael Garron Hospital, has called on the province to implement the tougher security measures that were discussed in their plans months ago

“The encouraging thing is that you’ve already thought about the important issues,” she said, “Now it’s time to wipe the ideas off”

The ministry would not confirm whether the memo discussing surveillance tests in schools was ever sent.It was drafted sometime in July and is aimed at Education Directors, Board Chairmen and School Boards of Lecce and Deputy Minister Nancy Naylor

Grebenc, the Halton Chair, said it did not receive it. She would like to know why the province proposed in the memo for “comprehensive surveillance testing wherever community transmission could pose a risk to school communities. has not implemented ”

“It looks like someone thought back then and then they got fired. For what reason? Was it financial? “She said,” We should have used the tools we had “

Experts surveyed for this story said the ministry should have launched a targeted surveillance testing program once schools reopened, including focusing on classrooms and schools with COVID cases to determine the level of transmission in the school has taken place and to determine if security measures need to be strengthened

The ministry replied that there was test residue in many regions from mid-September to mid-November on Fast 9500 tests were conducted as part of the voluntary asymptomatic testing program the province launched in schools in Toronto, York, Peel, and Ottawa in late November

The ministry did not provide a detailed breakdown of the results. In early January, Lecce told reporters there was a positivity rate of around two percent, which is “below the provincial average” “

The pilot did not include schools in Windsor-Essex, where the rapid rise in COVID cases caused the local health unit to close schools a week before Christmas break, a mobile testing site at a primary school where at least 49 cases were detected in November was an initiative led not by the province but by the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit

According to the ministry, Windsor-Essex was banned from the pilot because the region, which now has one of the highest COVID rates in Ontario, was not a designated red zone when the program was developed

During the fall, the vast majority of schools in Ontario with COVID cases appear to have avoided the major outbreak nightmare scenario, but Amy Greer, Canadian research professor of population disease modeling and specialist in infectious disease epidemiology at the University of Guelph, said that us blinded by the lack of surveillance testing

“We also have a narrative that there is no transmission in schools and that may be true. But it couldn’t be, either,” Greer said. “Had we implemented a very focused, systematic approach to this question To really answer, we would have a better understanding of how to think about escalating (safety) measures in school to be able to withstand significantly higher transmission rates in the community ”

At the beginning of October, when the provincial test jam 80000, the province relaxed symptom screening guidelines for schools and day-care centers so that children with runny noses and other short-lived symptoms can return to class without a test

The move was not in line with recommendations in a guide called “Confidential Draft” that was distributed to the Ministry of Education in June

“Given the wide range of symptoms for COVID-19 and the evolving understanding of the disease, a low threshold for symptoms is recommended,” it reads

Dr Mustafa Hirji, acting health officer for the Niagara area, said this advice about screening shows the ministry “had the right thinking internally that this was really important. Unfortunately, they didn’t get through.”

The ministry did not comment on the June document released earlier this month as an appendix to its “Approach to Reopening Schools.” The province previously defended the decision to relax symptom screening, stating that it is on medical terms Advice was based

The province reversed school screening courses earlier this month and tightened policies across Ontario in response to rising COVID rates

Hirji said he was concerned that cases had gone undetected in the past few weeks, adding that screening for symptoms “is one of the easiest and probably most effective ways” to keep COVID out of schools

Prime Minister Doug Ford spoke to reporters in May and said he wanted all teachers to be tested for COVID before schools reopen in the fall

This proposal was discussed internally over the next month. A draft of the Ministry’s “Approach to Reopening Schools” published in June includes the line: “TBD: Premier commits all teachers to be tested before the start of the school year – still one Requirement? “

This sentence contains a red line in the draft below. This commitment does not appear in the published version of the guide and has not been realized

The ministry told the star that the proposal was made on the recommendation of public health experts due to the increased pressure on the test system at the time and the fact that the results of a COVID test only reflect the moment a person is is wiped away, has been abandoned

Experts like Greer and McCready agree that one-off testing would not have eliminated the risk A teacher who tests negative one day could catch COVID the next and go undetected, however, Tuite notes that it would have made sense to set a “baseline level of entry” and that some introductions of COVID to schools might have been prevented, especially if the tests had been repeated in the fall

According to the ministry, Ontario school authorities reported 82 cases of COVID among staff in September, another 133 reported cases were in schools, but school authorities did not say whether they were students or staff, so it’s impossible to know how many of these infections started before school and would have been discovered through such tests

Alexander Brown, chairman of the Toronto District School Board, said it was a mistake not to enforce the idea of ​​testing all teachers

“That was maybe a really good thing to make sure our teachers are in good shape,” Brown said. “We would all have been really looking forward to it,”

Brown also criticized the department for withdrawing its original recommendation to limit all classes to 15 students

In the “Approach to School Reopening” document published last June, the ministry said that school authorities “should maintain a limit of 15 students in a typical classroom at a time.” This recommendation was derived from a key aspect of public health advice, to “keep a distance of 2 meters,” said the ministry

While Ontario’s back-to-school plan for high schools largely followed this recommendation, the ministry has not set a limit of 15 in elementary schools. The province has been heavily criticized by parents, school authorities and teachers

Due to funding restrictions, the TDSB was only able to limit classes with 15 in kindergarten and 20 in older classes in designated hotspot areas

Brown said this was having an impact in the northwest corner of the city, which had some of the highest rates of COVID, the virus led to the closure of only one high-risk TDSB elementary school, where class sizes were reduced significantly

“To me, that’s a clear indication that if you put the resources in your schools you’re not closing,” he said

The department did not comment on school closings at the TDSB Generally speaking, the department said students in Ontario experienced higher positivity rates compared to elementary school students, reiterating that transmission in classrooms in Ontario remains low

The ministry also said it has funded school authorities to support smaller classes and hire more teachers, noting that there is a shortage of teachers in the province

The province has extended school closings in Toronto, Peel, York, Hamilton and Windsor-Essex to February 10 Schools in the rest of southern Ontario were slated to reopen in January 25, but the province announced on Wednesday that schools in several regions, including Durham and Halton, would remain closed

“During this pandemic, we have followed expert scientific advice and systematically strengthened our plan for school safety,” said Clark, the minister’s spokesman. “This focus will continue as we expand targeted surveillance testing across the province, ventilation continuously improve and recruit thousands of new teachers, carers (parenting assistants) and mental health workers to support our students ”

“The things we have to do now are the things we have to do in June,” she said

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