School boards ready for students

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Alex Kurial, Local Journalism Initiative
The Petrolia Independent

Students in Chatham-Kent won’t be having assemblies or eating in the cafeteria when they return to class in September.

Those are just a couple of examples of how the Lambton-Kent District School Board and the St. Clair Catholic District School Board are getting ready for the new school year with a bit more caution than recommended by the province.

Earlier this month, the Ontario government put out their guidelines for a return to class. Students will wear masks and the province is investing in HEPA filters for classrooms to improve ventilation.

Sports and music are also allowed with safety conditions.

But the Lambton Kent public board and St. Clair Catholic board aren’t quite ready to adopt all the recommended provincial measures.

“There are a few things that are permitted that we are just not quite ready to embrace yet,” said Lambton-Kent Director of Education John Howitt. The public board put out its own back-to-school guidelines.

“An example of that is assemblies. We think we just need to gather a little bit more data and let the school year get started before we go in that direction,” said Howitt.

The plan said all cafeterias will be closed to start the year but Howitt said there’s some wiggle room there.

“We have some really small schools where cafeterias may make sense to be used following the guidance of eating in cohorts and maintaining two metres minimum distance between cohorts. But we also have some context in schools where it may still be appropriate for students to eat in the classrooms.”

For schools where the cafeteria is closed, elementary students must bring their own food and eat it with their own class, without sharing.

High schoolers also need to bring their own food but are allowed to leave school to go buy lunch. There also won’t be any working vending machines.

All students are allowed to go home for lunch and there will be food at school if they forget to bring some.

All ages must also bring a refillable water bottle instead of individually drinking from the fountains.

Scott Johnson, director of education for St. Clair Catholic, said their plan should be ready this week.

“We’ve been working with the public board and our local medical officers of health to make sure that we’re pretty consistent in our applications,” he said.

Johnson said assemblies and cafeterias will also be unlikely to start the year. And unlike the public school board, field trips will be off the table for a while.

While there will be more activity in the schools, many parents and medical associations are calling for mandatory vaccines for people who work in the province’s schools. The Delta variant of COVID-19 is spreading rapidly and, as U.S. schools have learned, children are susceptible to it. Couple that with the fact there isn’t a vaccine available for kids under 12 and schools could be vulnerable to the virus.

But, the provincial government isn’t mandating vaccination for staff. Instead it’s implemented a vaccination disclosure policy where staff must say if they have had a vaccine or have a medical exemption or taken a vaccine education course. Those who remain unvaccinated will have to take a rapid test at least once a week.

Some parents and medical groups say that’s short of what is needed for a safe return to the classroom.

It seems Chatham-Kent’s Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Colby,  doesn’t believe the vaccination policy goes far enough.

Colby said the province’s policy of allowing teachers to have rapid tests if they aren’t vaccinated is not a viable alternative to vaccination.

“That frequent testing strategy has not proved useful in preventing outbreaks … the idea of offering people an alternative of recent negative test results was a good idea, but it is not proving fruitful.”

He cited an example from the Netherlands last month where a music festival requiring either proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID test led to an outbreak of more than 1,000 cases. The 40-hour window between the negative test and the actual concert proved more than enough time for people to spread the virus.

As parents make plans for back to school, they won’t know if the teachers in their schools have been vaccinated. Results from the vaccination disclosure policy – which identifies how many teachers and staff at each school have been vaccinated – will be available to the public by Sept. 15.

 

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