In-person schooling must be priority, Toronto’s medical officer of health says

Concerns about schools reopening are outweighed by the need for kids to get back to class because they have suffered “significant harms” with online learning, says Toronto’s medical officer of health.

“What this comes down to is the criticality or essentiality of in-person learning for kids,” Dr. Eileen de Villa said in an interview with the Star on Thursday, just days before schools are to reopen for students across the province.

“The evidence shows school closures and shifts to online learning are associated with pretty significant harms — particularly from an educational perspective, but also from a mental health and developmental perspective,” she said.

“This was a major driving force behind this.”

She said while “COVID-19 is a key risk at this point in time … we are also looking at all of the other aspects of health, seeking to optimize the in-person learning environment, recognizing that we are looking at the whole health of the child — physical, mental, social development … We have to look at all aspects of health.”

A new report from the province’s COVID-19 science table found that “school closures are associated with substantial mental health and educational entertainment harms” and that “these risks are cumulative and are disproportionately experienced among families from marginalized groups.”

The science table report come as pediatric experts at Sick Kids and Ottawa’s CHEO, among other experts, have expressed their support to send kids back to school Jan. 17.

Critics, and parents, have raised a number of concerns, in particular that COVID cases in schools won’t be tracked given limited lab-based testing in the province. However, the province says daily absences will instead be published online. And de Villa said public health is working with both the Toronto public and Catholic boards to see if COVID cases can somehow be reported to families who say they need that information to know if schools are safe.

In an email to parents late Thursday, the TDSB said when it learns of a confirmed COVID case in a class parents will be notified.

In Ontario — where, now at 27 weeks, students have learned online longer than others in North America and many European countries — the science table said there is now provincial evidence that kids ages five to 19 have low risk of hospitalization or serious health issues from Omicron.

“Existing evidence suggests that closures of in-person learning has a smaller effect on community spread of SARS-CoV-2 compared to many other public health measures,” the science table said in its report that strongly supports back to school with things such as masking, improved ventilation and a focus on getting staff and kids vaccinated.

“School closures are associated with educational and social challenges for children and families,” the report says, noting a “sixfold increase in extreme student absenteeism (not being present for more than 50 per cent of classes) during the pandemic.”

De Villa said “the importance of in-person learning — it can’t be overstated, and the science supports that.”

School closings “increase social isolation, a major contributor to the worsening of children’s mental health in Ontario,” including a near-tripling of depression and anxiety among kids with no previous issues, the science table reported.

“Ontario evidence shows deterioration in children’s mental health that is substantial and sustained,” the report also says.

Students were set to return to in-person learning on Jan. 3, which was initially delayed for two days so the government had time to start sending out masks and additional HEPA air filters to schools. Premier Doug Ford then said because of a surge in COVID-19 Omicron cases kids would have to learn remotely until Jan. 17.

On Wednesday, Education Minister Stephen Lecce and chief medical officer of health Dr. Kieran Moore announced that all staff and students will initially be given two rapid tests, and that millions of N95 masks have been distributed for teachers, along with a focus on holding vaccination clinics in schools before, during and after classes for families.

Since last November, Toronto has held more than 250 vaccine clinics for school staff and families, with more in the coming weeks.

Given limits to provincial PCR lab-based testing, schools will no longer be reporting daily COVID cases, but instead school absences — a category that encompasses all reasons kids aren’t at school, not just COVID. When a school hits 30 per cent, families will be notified.

De Villa also said stricter COVID protocols may be put in place in some schools, on a “case-by-case basis,” depending on what’s happening in the immediate community.

“We are going to do everything we can to make sure that schools are as safe as possible,” she said. “I know that there are a variety of feelings and opinions about in-person learning at this time, in the midst of a pandemic, but regardless of whether you are concerned about it or ready for your kids to go back, I think it’s really important that parents, students and education workers appreciate and know, and feel assured” that families and school staff “will get the information and updates that they need.”


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