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Ottawa-Carleton board grapples with how to report COVID-19 cases at school

School boards across Ontario are responding to pressure from parents demanding more information about COVID-19 at schools after the province stopped reporting cases.

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The Ottawa-Carleton District School Board’s new COVID-19 website will list the number of students and staff with self-reported cases of the disease in every grade at schools across the city, but not necessarily in every classroom.

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The Ottawa Catholic School Board, meanwhile, doesn’t post information about every school, but sends letters to parents in classes that have self-reported cases.

School boards in Ottawa and across Ontario are responding to pressure from parents demanding more information about COVID-19 at schools after the province stopped reporting cases.

Several school boards, including all four in Ottawa, provide information, but they are doing it in different ways while warning the data is inherently unreliable.

A discussion among trustees at the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board on Tuesday illustrated some of the challenges involved in collecting and publicizing information based on parents voluntarily reporting their children have COVID-19.

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Previously, cases at schools were tracked and reported using laboratory results from PCR tests.

Parents were informed by public health authorities if there was a case at school or in a child’s class. The province and school boards posted weekday updates on school cases. Ottawa Public Health reported outbreaks, which were declared when the virus was spread at school.

But, when schools reopened earlier this month, that tracking and reporting system was gone.

When the surge of Omicron cases hit Ontario, the government restricted PCR testing to those at highest risk.

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Students and staff at schools are being shifted to rapid antigen tests done at home. There’s a shortage of those tests, with students and staff given two each for the time being. Anyone with symptoms is advised to assume they have COVID-19 and to stay home.

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The province does not require parents to report to the school if their children test positive on rapid antigen or PCR tests. Classmates are not informed or asked to isolate.

The part of the Ottawa Public Health website that previously reported school outbreaks now says “N/A” (not applicable).

However, the province posts how many students and staff are absent every day, which is a possible warning signal of COVID-19 outbreaks.

When absences rise to 30 per cent above normal levels, public health authorities are alerted.

The absence reports indicate who’s not in class for any reason, whether they are ill with COVID-19 or anything else, in isolation, on vacation or being kept out of school by parents spooked by Omicron.

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Brett Reynolds, associate director of education for the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, says parents who need to protect vulnerable members of their households should know the voluntary reports of positive COVID-19 tests are incomplete and would not want to use them as their sole source of information about whether their child attends in-person school.
Brett Reynolds, associate director of education for the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, says parents who need to protect vulnerable members of their households should know the voluntary reports of positive COVID-19 tests are incomplete and would not want to use them as their sole source of information about whether their child attends in-person school. Photo by Julie Oliver /Postmedia

The lack of information has alarmed many parents.

At Tuesday’s Ottawa-Carleton board meeting, parent Dawn Pickering pleaded with trustees to publicize information about cases of COVID-19 in classrooms.

Pickering’s nine-year-old son had cancer, enduring chemotherapy, radiation and a stem-cell transplant from his 12-year-old sister. It has left him blind, but her son is now “doing very well” and is eager to be back in class, she said.

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However, he is immune compromised and she needs to know if there are cases of COVID-19 in his class to keep him safe, she said.

If schools can send home a letter warning about a case of lice in class, surely they can also warn parents about a case of COVID-19, Pickering said.

At the meeting, administrators cautioned parents not to be falsely reassured by information on the COVID-19 website, which is expected to be online later this week.

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“As much as people may want to know who has reported a case of COVID in their school or their class, really they have to remember that it is voluntary reporting by people who believe they have been infected,” said Brett Reynolds, the board’s associate director.

Parents who need to protect vulnerable members of their households should know the voluntary reports are incomplete and would not want to use them as their sole source of information about whether their child attends in-person school, Reynolds said.

Details of the website are still being worked out.

It will list self-reported cases by grade, and probably by class in elementary schools, executive officer Michele Giroux said.

She said it would be more difficult to list cases by class at secondary schools.

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Several trustees said parents wanted to know about cases in their children’s classes.

In response to a question about whether parents could be notified directly about cases in their childrens classes, director Camille Williams-Taylor said asking teachers to send letters to parents would be problematic. There would be no consistency in what information was provided, she noted: “… the number of ways that could go very badly …”

Williams-Taylor also warned of “contractual challenge around compelling teachers to be the ones providing those kinds of reports.”

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The other three school boards in Ottawa do not have websites identifying the number of cases at schools across their districts, but notify parents of cases in their children’s classes.

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For instance, at the Ottawa Catholic School Board, parents are asked to notify the principal if their child has tested positive and the school sends a letter to the parents of classmates.

At least two other boards in the province have created COVID-19 advisory websites.

The Durham District School Board posts both self-reported cases of students and staff who are absent because of any illness and reports of positive COVID-19 tests. It also lists schools closed for operational reasons like staff shortages.

The Toronto Catholic District School Board posts self-reported positive COVID-19 cases by school.

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Camille Williams-Taylor, director of education for the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, said asking teachers to send letters to parents would be problematic. There would be no consistency in what information was provided.
Camille Williams-Taylor, director of education for the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, said asking teachers to send letters to parents would be problematic. There would be no consistency in what information was provided. Photo by Screen capture /Zoom

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