Yesterday the PHO decided to stagger school opening to prepare for full opening on January 10th. In view of the other statements made at the press conference this is purely a political move made for two reasons. First, because of our failed testing system in the province we have no handle on the actual number of cases in the province, so the school districts need to find out how many teachers and employees are infected. The only way to determine this is to partially open schools on the third and see how many show up for work. Secondly, the government was under so much pressure from parents who saw other provinces delaying school opening that they succumbed to that pressure. The delay had absolutely nothing to do with caring for the children’s and employees’ health, rather it was a cover for the level of incompetence in the office of the PHO. If they really cared about the health and safety of the children, the PHO, Minister of Education and School Boards would be using the coming week to undertake the actions listed below.
First, it is very clear that the first line of defence against this virus is the vaccine. And it is not just being double vaccinated. The evidence is very clear that for best protection against Omicron the third booster shot is needed. The rigid and poorly managed vaccine system in the province has meant teachers and school employees have been denied access to the required booster shot. Our children need vaccine protection as well but to date, only thirty-five percent of the children have been vaccinated. This is in large measure due to the PHO refusing to set up vaccine clinics in schools where it would be most convenient for children to be vaccinated. And we also have the current situation where many teachers and school employees remain unvaccinated. This is the result of incompetence at the School Board level and duplicity at the PHO level. When asked about this situation the PHO says it is up to the employer (School Boards) to implement a mandate while the School Boards say when they sought the advice of the PHO, they were advised not to mandate. The PHO mandated the vaccine for those in her employ but advises against it for schools leaving the children in danger. The PHO wants her cake and to eat it too. On the other hand, the Boards have simply abandoned their fiduciary duty to keep our children safe.
If the PHO and Minister truly cared, they would use next week to set up vaccination clinics in at least one school in each district and provide boosters for ever teacher and pediatric vaccines for the children. When one considers that the current system has left 240,000 vaccine appointments unused, clinics have shut down because of the cold and even when clinics are open people have been left standing in line for five hours, using warm empty schools seems only logical to serve a population in immediate need. Lastly, Boards should mandate vaccines for all employees.
Second, if the Minister cared at all, she would ensure that each school district had enough N95 masks for every student and employee in the system. When asked yesterday, the Minister said they would continue to supply the same level of three-ply masks to the system. How is this enhanced safety? First, many masks they supplied previously were only two ply and secondly, we now have clear evidence that the N95 provides the best protection against the virus and there is an abundant supply now available. This is such a simple thing to do in the week ahead yet the Minister refuses to act!
Third, the PHO and Minister are failing parents and the entire system by refusing to distribute Rapid Antigen Tests. The schools could have assurance that everyone in the school was virus free if they required a negative test to stay in school. The coming week could be used to set up a system to use those tests that are sitting in a warehouse to better protect our schools. You will recall the kits were going to be used to protect health workers going to their own Christmas party, surely protecting schools is a more worthwhile cause. Our PHO has lagged behind every other province in the use of Rapid Antigen Tests, and it is time we caught up and employed them to protect our schools!
Fourth, every school’s classroom should be assessed in the coming week for its ventilation standard. Those that are deemed inadequate should be provided with a portable unit with a HEPA or equivalent filtering system to ensure we are doing everything we can to keep the air virus free. This is the School Boards responsibility but as with the vaccine mandate, I have yet to see any Board in this province step up to the plate and hit a home run for our kids.
Fifth, the week should be used to create ways to truly provide the maximum social distancing we can do in the schools. Yesterdays’ conference demonstrated another bias by both the PHO and the Minister (both of whom know little to nothing about the reality of school operations and programing). Both said we are not going to online learning because it does not work. It is like they want to be taken dragging and screaming into the future of learning. No one I know is advocating for full time online learning for all students but a hybrid model using a combination of in person and online learning could be very useful for the situation in which we find ourselves. Some online leaning such as the Khan Academy has proven very successful. If high schools used a hybrid model the social distancing could be improved as all students would not have to be in school at the same time. Yet we are limiting our possibilities by virtually banning the use of online learning. Staggard lunches do not hold nearly the potential of social distancing that a hybrid model might have, but the Ministry refuses to invest in learning models for the future. Their focus is simply on political expediency and that does not bode well for our students now or in the future.
If the PHO and Minister really cared about keeping children safe in schools, then they would use schools as vaccine centers for the upcoming week ensuring teachers and children had priority for boosters and vaccines. They would deliver to schools N95 masks for all. They would implement a Rapid Antigen Testing system to truly enhance the safety in schools.
If Boards really cared about the safety of the children, they would implement a vaccine mandate for all employees. They would assess and correct any classroom ventilation issues even if it is only providing a temporary portable filtering device until proper upgrades are feasible. They would also request from their Superintendents an implementation plan for a hybrid learning model that enhanced social distancing in each secondary school.
Unfortunately, none of these three entities truly care about the health and safety of our children. They have implemented the opening strategy simply to see what the absenteeism rate of employees is going to look like when school begins. Once open on June 10th, Omicron will spread like wildfire, children will be hospitalized at an increasing rate and our classrooms will be unsafe for both children and employees. All this because the PHO, Minister of Education and School Boards refuse to undertake the five practical steps above.
Our children, teachers and school employees deserve competent leadership that truly cares about their well-being! They deserve enhanced safety measures not political expediency.
Doug Player December 30,2021.