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Ottawa high schools still planning to adopt normal schedule; COVID rules changing at schools

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The Ottawa-Carleton District School Board still hopes to restore the regular four-course-a-day schedule for high school students in February, trustees were told Tuesday.

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However, nothing can be confirmed yet as the board responds to evolving pandemic plans, said the board’s associate director Brett Reynolds during a COVID-19 update.

The province had directed boards to end the two-long-courses-a-day schedule that has been used at most secondary schools to reduce mixing among high school students.

The goal was to return to a more normal school schedule.

But in the meantime, the Omicron variant has fuelled a new surge of COVID-19 cases. Students were temporarily shifted to online learning at home after the Christmas holiday break.

The province’s education minister and deputy minister told school boards in a memo Dec. 30 that secondary school scheduling would be decided in collaboration with local health units.

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Students across the province are returning to in-person classes on Jan. 17.

The high school schedule was just one of many issues on the table as trustees at the meeting Tuesday heard about changes at schools based on new directions from the provincial government.

Some of the biggest changes are limits on PCR testing for students and staff and a weakening of rules surrounding the identification and dismissal of students and staff who have been exposed to COVID-19 at school.

The education ministry says at the same time that additional layers of protection have been added, such as N95 masks for teachers and three-layer cloth masks for students.

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Some of the pandemic testing, contact tracing and isolating protocols that had been in place at schools have ended.

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Students and staff with symptoms of COVID-19 are no longer eligible to automatically receive a PCR test, which is processed in a lab. Take-home PCR kits will be distributed at schools only to those who develop symptoms while at school.

Students and staff can take a rapid antigen test at home, although they are in short supply. The province has said it is trying to procure more.

In addition, anyone with symptoms of the disease has been advised by public health authorities to isolate at home and assume they have COVID-19.

As a result, it will be difficult to get reliable information about how many people in schools have COVID-19.

The province has suspended reporting of cases at schools.

School boards will no longer post daily COVID-19 reports, which had been based on PCR testing results.

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Parents are really concerned about the lack of information about the COVID-19 situation at their child’s school, said board chair Lynn Scott. “Surely there is something that we can do that would give parents at least some general reassurance, or alternatively some general cause for heightened vigilance, as it were.”

Reynolds said the board is discussing the possibilities with Ottawa Public Health. One of the challenges is collecting reliable information.

If the board asked parents to voluntarily tell the school their child has symptoms of COVID-19 or has tested positive on a rapid or PCR test — and under the new rules, they are not required to — that might result in false reassurance to parents because it would underestimate the real number of cases at school, said Reynolds.

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One option is “monitoring overall absentee rates for illness and reporting those to public health, which may lead to the declaration of an outbreak, as might have been done with, say a Norwalk outbreak prior to COVID,” said Reynolds.

In addition, under the new rules published this week by the provincial Ministry of Health, parents will no longer be notified of cases in their child’s class or cohort.

Classes will no longer be dismissed from school due to COVID-19, although individual students are expected to stay home if they are sick or have tested positive.

Classes may still be closed for operational reasons, said Reynolds. That could happen if they can’t operate safely because of staff absences.

Reynolds said the board does not expect to mix students from different classes together, an option suggested by the Ministry of Education in order to keep schools running if there are high rates of absences.

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That would break the cohorting system of keeping classes from mixing with other students, which is a key element of pandemic safety protocols.

Trustees also discussed the challenges presented by students eating lunch at school, which many parents and staff have identified as one of the highest-risk times of the day because masks are removed and there is no requirement for two metres of distancing.

Elementary students eat lunch in their classrooms, while high school students typically eat lunch with others in their grade in designated areas at school, or go outside.

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Trustee Lyra Evans suggested that in classrooms, only half the students eat at a time to allow for more distancing between them when masks are removed.

Trustee Christine Boothby asked if elementary students who now have two “nutrition breaks” a day could have only one lunch break instead, but Reynolds said it would be too difficult and disruptive to reorganize school schedules.

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