After a two-week delay, students across the province returned to in-person learning this Monday (Jan. 17) to some notable and controversial COVID protocols.
Local health units will no longer be dismissing student cohorts and notifying parents if there’s a positive COVID case discovered. Parents will only be notified by the health unit when 30 per cent of staff and students at a school are absent, regardless of whether those absences are related to COVID-19. Health officials say the highly transmissible Omicron variant simply has made it too difficult to do case and contact management anymore. But after considering the impact more online learning could have on the student population, Dr. Carol Zimbalatti, public health physician for the North Bay Parry Sound District Health Unit, says that returning to class is the right call.
“It is all about balancing risks and it is shown that school-age children do have much lower rates of severe illness than the rest of the population when it comes to COVID, but they are experiencing severe outcomes due to school closures,” explains Dr. Zimbalatti. “On balance, though with the return to school we can’t eliminate the risk of transmission, we do believe the benefit of being in school does outweigh the risk.”
Online learning has posed a real struggle for some local parents. When the province announced that the return to class would be delayed until Jan. 17, Isabelle Rejeanne chose to give her children that time off, because she says over the computer, they’re just not getting the support they need.
“I decided to have my kids not do the online learning,” she says. “The amount of stress that this causes at home does not outweigh the academic results. In terms of dealing with the shutdown, this simply adds up to depression, anxiety and isolation that people have been carrying for the last years.”
Rejeanne was not worried about her kids returning to class this week, noting that schools should be safe places as long as they’re using proper PPE and social distancing. Upgrading the PPE for schools was part of the reason the province had to delay the return until this week.
The Ministry of Education announced on Jan. 12 that they would be providing all staff with N95 masks and students with three-ply cloth masks; giving every student two rapid antigen tests and putting an additional 3,000 HEPA filter units in schools.
However, self-monitoring will continue to be vital in stopping any potential spread, as the Health Unit acknowledged they won’t be able to catch every positive case.
“The main reason behind not being able to notify parents of cases in schools is that we aren’t testing everyone at this point,” says Zimbalatti. “The case numbers in the population are quite high and we’re having to focus our efforts in the Health Unit to area facilities which are at the highest risk in terms of the populations they serve (hospitals, LTCs, group homes)… there will likely be some high-risk close contacts and there will be even some cases who attend school. Because of the pressures currently to perform case and contact management, and to be able to provide tests to everyone, it’s just not feasible to be aware of all of those circumstances, so that’s why the additional protections in school are helpful.”
Anticipating that many staff members will need to self-isolate for COVID-19 symptoms, the province also reached an agreement with the Ontario Teachers’ Federation increasing the number of days retired educators can work, from 50 to 95. Schools have also advised that some classes may be combined or even cancelled if staff resources become to scarce.
Teachers aren’t the only education staff that could be impacted by Omicron. Nipissing-Parry Sound Student Transportation Services advised parents that because spare driver levels are at their lowest in years due to the pandemic, local bus routes could be impacted if drivers are required to self-isolate. Driver shortages will be listed on their delays page, so parents are encouraged to check the website (npssts.ca) regularly.
In-school vaccine clinics permitted
The return to class also provides the Health Unit an opportunity to run school-based vaccination clinics during learning hours, to increase the uptake in not only the 5-11 age group (locally, 41% of children aged 5-11 have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine), but also in some of the less immunized communities.
“Some of the smaller communities there are lower vaccination rates… we’re trying to work through, in terms of our vaccine clinics, how to best offer them to make them as accessible as possible,” says Zimballati. “We’re working closely with the school boards to be able to offer information on vaccine clinics, but also information on COVID vaccines in general, so that gets out to all eligible individuals.”
For those seeking their first, second or third dose of vaccine, there’s only one upcoming clinic currently scheduled in Sturgeon Falls, on Wednesday, Jan. 26 at Marcel Noel Hall from 2 to 7 p.m. However, you can also make an appointment with a local pharmacy or contact your primary care physician to get the jab.
Local indicators low, but provincial restrictions could remain
Ontario reported 3,887 hospitalizations of people with COVID-19 on Jan. 17, an indicator health officials are focusing on with case rates no longer providing a reliable snapshot of Omicron’s transmission.
Locally, the North Bay Parry Sound Health Unit reported one new death from COVID on Monday. There were also three people hospitalized. Though the level of severe cases appears low relative to other areas, Dr. Zimbalatti says there’s still concern over hospital capacity.
“Our hospitals are quite full, it’s not necessarily with COVID related cases or illness, they are just full in general due to many different causes and so we do need to be careful about how we’re managing. I don’t think we’re out of the woods in terms of our healthcare capacity,” she warns.
The Health Unit is hopeful that we’re hitting a crest with Omicron cases, but they know they don’t have a clear picture of the local rate. So when asked whether it was likely we’d move out of Stage 2 on Jan. 26, Dr. Zimbalatti echoed Dr. Kieran Moore’s statement that there’s no guarantees.
There was good news early this week though, as Health Canada approved Pfizer’s Paxlovid, an oral antiviral drug used to reduce symptoms from the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The drug could potentially aid in reducing hospitalizations across the nation. It’s only approved for use by those 18 years and older.
Municipal staff also being impacted by Omicron
Omicron is having an effect on the municipality’s day-to-day operations, causing some minor delays in garbage pick-up as well as with snow removal. But CAO Jay Barbeau says staff levels are not a major cause for concern at this time.
“COVID is having an effect on our workforce to a degree,” Barbeau admits. “Not to a great degree, but to a degree that we’re continuously looking at our staff and making slight adjustments if certain people are unavailable… It creates some challenges for us to deliver service. With respect to public works, this is doubly so, because those employees all have specific runs that they have to do to remove snow and if two or three are off at the same time, it involves us having to be a little bit slower in delivering service.”
The municipality is asking that residents be a little patient if roads, especially rural areas, aren’t cleared at their usual rate. The municipality can contract out additional work if needed, but at this point, Barbeau says they’re still exceeding the province’s minimum maintenance standards.
“So far we’re weathering the storm, pardon the pun,” he says.
The municipality still hasn’t formally adopted its mandatory vaccination policy because of the ongoing council gridlock.