Minister of Education, Stephen Lecce, confirmed Niagara students would return to in-class learning next week, but school boards are still waiting to hear the plan for targeted asymptomatic testing.
Niagara’s acting medical officer of health, Dr. Mustafa Hirji, said Friday that following provincial guidelines, the public health department will engage in “targeted asymptomatic testing” of students.
“We are not going to just randomly mass test students and teachers because we know there isn’t much value to that,” said Hirji.
In most cases, Hirji said, before the current lockdown, COVID-19 was not spreading widely in schools, with only a handful of outbreaks declared. There were a few cases in which it was not clear where the source of an outbreak was, or there was concern the virus has spread beyond what had been detected. In those cases, he said, public health used asymptomatic testing to get a better picture of the situation.
“That is the sort of situation in which we would send teams into a school to do testing,” Hirji said.
Hirji said despite Niagara’s COVID-19 metrics, which place the region in the same group of Ontario communities hit hard by the pandemic — including Windsor-Essex, Peel and Toronto — he thinks schools can open safely.
Schools were not a major driver of infections before being shuttered by the provincial government, and modelling by the provincial pandemic science table released last week showed that when schools are open, the overall infection rate rises “by only an incremental amount,” Hirji said.
“When it comes to other areas of society re-opening, absolutely I would say this is not the time, but I think it is very important we open schools and I think we can do it,” he said. “The proof is always in the real-world experience, and hopefully, we can do this safely as a first step toward re-opening other parts of society.”
Niagara Catholic District School Board said it would support and work with public health.
“Niagara Region Public Health has said it does not support broad asymptomatic testing in schools,” said Camillo Cipriano, NCDSB director of education, in a statement. “It is our understanding that a recommendation for testing would only be made if there is a community or school-based outbreak or a cluster of unrelated cases at a school.”
“Niagara Catholic supports this and will work with public health, as we have done throughout the pandemic, to ensure the health and safety of our students and staff,” he said. “Any testing that would take place would be voluntary for staff and students, and parents and staff would have notification ahead of the proposed testing date. No student would be tested without parental consent.”
However, Niathe NCDSB did not indicate if they were aware of what public health’s or the province’s asymptomatic testing plan was.
Warren Hoshizaki, the director of education for the District School Board of Niagara, was also unsure if testing was coming to the public board’s schools.
“If asymptomatic testing does come to our schools, decisions on how it will be implemented will come from the experts at Niagara Public Health,” he said. “They have been a great partner to us through the pandemic, and we continue to meet weekly with them and work together to keep our school communities safe.”
Lecce announced this week an expansion of the asymptomatic testing in schools, which will see as many as 50,000 students and staff tested for the virus per week across the province.
In addition to working with public health units to ramp up asymptomatic testing of students and staff, Niagara-West MPP Sam Oosterhoff said the province has also been working with school boards to identify priority areas for allocating the enhanced testing.
Cases of the virus in Niagara are among the highest in the province.
Oosterhoff said public health units “have been given the lead working with school boards in the best way to ensure the tests are administered, recognizing their on-the-ground expertise.”
It is unclear who will be called on to administer those tests.
“That’s why there have been 625 additional public health nurses hired across the province, which is a lot of nurses as well, to ensure there is adequate support,” Oosterhoff said. “But we recognize, of course, that we’re going to also have to move, depending on what boards have particular outbreaks that need to be responded to.”
Oosterhoff referred to provincial data showing the overwhelming majority of Ontario’s students — 99.6 per cent — have not had a reported case of COVID-19, and less than one per cent of Ontario’s 4,800 schools have had to close due to outbreaks of the virus.
District School Board of Niagara reported cases of the virus in 28 schools it operates, and numerous cases within several of those schools — such as Lincoln Centennial, where 11 cases were reported. Meanwhile, 21 cases of the virus were reported at Niagara Catholic District School Board facility, with two schools — St. Martin elementary in Smithville and Saint Michael Catholic High School in Niagara Falls — reporting 10 cases each.
Niagara’s NDP MPPs were critical of the government’s re-opening plan.
Niagara Centre MPP, Jeff Burch, said in a statement, “In recent reporting by the Toronto Star, Niagara was determined to have one of the highest risks of COVID-19 transmission in schools.”
“We all want to see children safely back in school, but Minister Lecce and his government have failed to implement the kind of safety measures parents, staff, and health experts have been asking for,” he said. “It’s clear they’re not looking at the science.”
Burch added, “Minister Lecce did not show Niagara Region Public Health the plan for school re-opening until after it had been announced, and then claimed in that announcement our health officials supported it. If we’re in the highest risk category for school transmission, it’s highly irresponsible they wouldn’t consult our experts to ensure this return is a safe one. “
St Catharines MPP, Jennie Stevens, said, “parents in St. Catharines want their children to get back to school — a stronger education for children and support for working families.”
“Except parents don’t want anymore last-minute school cancellations or kids risking COVID-19 spread at home,” she said. “Parents want their kids back in school, but they want those schools to be safe.”
Wayne Gates, MPP for Niagara Falls, acknowledged the importance of getting students back in the classroom.
“We know that it’s important for our kids to get back into the classroom,” he said. “But we still continue to have serious concerns over the lack of transparency and coherent directions from this government.”
“It’s not enough to just tell parents and teachers school is back; we need important measures in place, like testing, smaller class sizes, better ventilation, and paid sick leave,” he added.
Niagara students are set to return to in-class learning on Feb. 8.
With files from Grant LaFleche and Allan Benner.
Sean Vanderklis is a Niagara-based reporter for the Niagara Falls Review. His reporting is funded by the Canadian government through its Local Journalism Initiative. Reach him via email: [email protected]