Return to school is safe say school directors

Children wearing face masks in school. (File photo courtesy of © Can Stock Photo / halfpoint)

Education officials with the two largest school boards in Lambton-Kent are reassuring parents and students that schools are safe when students return to in-person learning on Monday.

St. Clair Catholic District School Board Director of Education Scott Johnson said he believes schools are safer than they were two weeks ago. He cites more time for people to get vaccinated, more N-95 masks for staff and three-ply masks for students, more rapid antigen tests, and more top-of-the-line HEPA filters.

“Do I think it’s a safer position than it was two weeks ago? I absolutely do,” said Johnson. “Each time we’ve come back, we’ve come back safer than we were the previous time and each time we’ve come back we had fewer cases in schools than we had originally feared.”

Lambton-Kent District School Board Director of Education John Howitt said effective strategies and greater protective measures have been put in place at schools and, in some cases, measures that compete with high hospitals standards.

“We spent his week reminding people of the quality of the PPE (personal protective equipment) as the protective measures that are in place, how effective they have been in the past, and that we’re here to support them and to reach out if they have any questions,” said Howitt.

Both directors are urging parents to use the revised online school screening tool, which they said is a very helpful guide to keep sick students at home.

Chatham-Kent Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Colby said, generally, students are safer in school than they are in the community because there’s more transmission outside of schools. He also said the previous strategy of searching and isolating doesn’t really work with the Omicron variant because it’s much more contagious. Colby said case management and testing programs to get reliable COVID-19 statistics are out the window and harm reduction is now the focus. He said the pandemic keeps changing and what was good advice before may not work now and we just have to learn to ride the waves as best as we can.

“This virus is sneaky and it changes faster than a chameleon and we have to change too in order to meet this challenge,” Dr. Colby added.

The school boards said even though COVID-19 cases at schools won’t be reported until there’s a 30 per cent absenteeism rate in any group, all absences will be reported starting January 24, 2022. They will include all absences of students and staff and not just those specific to COVID-19, according to Howitt.

Anxious parents, teachers and students can also get mental health support at School Mental Health Ontario.

The school board directors said short-term remote learning is available for those not comfortable returning to school, but it won’t be synchronized with a classroom lesson. He said homework will be handed out to those at home and the teacher will be available throughout the day to answer questions.