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Safe return to school hinges on physical distancing, York coalition urges

'We know the virus doesn’t travel as far as two metres, but it does travel one metre. We need students apart by two metres at all times,' Newmarket biostatistician says

A back to school that is actually safe for teachers, students and their families relies on creating and maintaining a space of six feet in classrooms, according to a Newmarket biostatistician and high school teacher.   

“The most important thing is physical distancing,” asserted Ryan Imgrund, who has become an acknowledged expert since he began tracking the pace of COVID-19 at the beginning of the pandemic for Southlake Regional Health Centre.

And that distance likely won’t happen in York Region elementary schools without a reduction in class sizes, he said during the York Communities for Public Education online event last week.

Physical distancing was Imgrund’s “strongest recommendation” when he joined the Sick Kids Hospital team for a simulation Aug. 19 to 20 to examine the effects of physical distancing, masking, hand hygiene and other health and safety measures for students and teachers returning to school.

In a space of 32 x 24 feet — the average size of a classroom in the region’s schools — “it’s very difficult, if next to impossible, to include 15 desks”, and there’s “no spot for the teacher”, Imgrund observed at the simulation.

“We know the virus doesn’t travel as far as two metres (six feet),” he said, “but it does travel one metre. We need students apart by two metres at all times,” said Imgrund.

The Ontario government’s strategy will see students in kindergarten to Grade 8 return to school without any reduction in class sizes, however, students will spend the day in a single cohort to limit contact with other children.

Most high school students in the province will also be in class full-time, however, in York Region, they will take half their courses online in a bid to curb the spread of COVID-19.

The province is allowing boards to make necessary adaptations, in consultation with their local public health unit, which can include smaller class sizes and leasing additional space, and providing access to reserves up to $496 million, an increase of $244 million, and up to 2 per cent of their operating budget from their prior-year accumulated surplus. 

Also, $50 million in one-time funding to support improved ventilation, air quality and HVAC system effectiveness in schools is available.

However, Ontario’s four main teachers unions — representing 190,000 teachers and education workers — said yesterday they will file complaints with the province’s labour board after last week’s meetings with the government failed to address their workplace safety concerns.

The Association des enseignantes et des enseignants franco-ontariens, the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario, the Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Association and the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation want the Labour Ministry to mandate 15 to 20 students per class, to ensure a two-metre distance can be maintained between pupils, among other concerns.

About 200 people, including many parents and teachers, joined the Safe Learn or No Return Facebook Live discussion Aug. 24 regarding the return to school — with the confusion caused by the lack of information provided by the York Region school boards and Ministry of Education clearly apparent in the stream of questions and concerns raised by them.

“We have to get this right from the very first day,” Imgrund said. “This is not a time to make mistakes.”

The coalition of parents, students, educators, education workers, and community allies formed about a year ago to battle the cuts to education planned by the Ford government. 

Now, their focus has shifted to the safe return to school, as well as racial equality, said  Shameela Shakeel, York Communities for Public Education co-chairperson and Newmarket parent of four.

“A lot of us are not feeling very positive about the return to school,” said Shakeel.

Two-thirds of families with elementary school-aged children are sending them to school in September for in-person learning, according to the York Region District School Board. A third of families have decided to keep their kindergarten to Grade 8 students at home for remote online learning.

About 80 per cent of the board’s high schools are choosing in-person learning. The remaining 20 per cent of secondary school students will learn remotely at home.

During the roundtable, many participants raised concerns about how exposure and outbreaks will be handled — asking if students will be required to isolate, and if parents and the school community will be informed of positive cases, for instance. 

“Is the idea still that classmates and teachers of those who test positive will not be considered close contact and will not be notified,” questioned Joanna Maselli. “Is this consistent with what happens in other workplaces (ie. offices)?” 

York Region public health has stated it will inform only close contacts of potential exposure, Imgrund stated.

“Students, teachers and parents need to know, they’re bringing this home and that’s what worries me,” he said. “We need a plan from public health about what is exposure, and how they will inform (the school community).”

He added he will request that his high school students download the COVID Alert app and place their cellphones together daily so they will be alerted if classmates test positive.

“What if someone has COVID and we don’t know?” said student Visali Manimaran, a member of the coalition. “That’s the scariest thing — I’m coming home to my parents and grandparents.”

“Most of our stress is coming from the complete lack of a cohesive plan,” commented teacher Carrie Perruzza. 

Ontario Premier Doug Ford said yesterday he won't hesitate to close schools if needed.

"We're ready and we're going to move as soon as the outbreak happens. If it really starts taking off, I will not hesitate for a second to close the schools down," Ford said at a news conference.

If there is more than one case of COVID-19 confirmed where the exposure occurred in a school, public health officials can close certain classes or the entire school, he said.

In the meantime, Imgrund is urging schools to convert spaces such as libraries and gyms into classrooms to allow physical distancing, and to hold classes outdoors when weather permits.

Shakeel suggested that municipalities provide currently unused spaces at community centres for classrooms “to help free up space in elementary schools.”

Some parents participating in the online discussion expressed concern about the ability to monitor the use of face coverings and physical distancing on school buses.

If distancing requirements are followed on buses, only seven students can be safely accommodated, said Shakeel. 

“We have to start exploring other ways of getting our kids to school,” she said, including taxis.

The coalition is seeking: decreased class sizes, increased safety protocol for staff and students, lower numbers of students on buses, increased funding for additional staff, and mandatory masks for kindergarten to Grade 12.

On his Twitter account, Imgrund compares back to school protocol among GTA public health units. He gives York Region Public Health only a single 'green' category. You can follow his daily COVID-19 updates on Twitter @imgrund


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Debora Kelly

About the Author: Debora Kelly

Debora Kelly is NewmarketToday's editor. She is an award-winning journalist and communications professional who is passionate about building strong communities through engagement, advocacy and partnership.
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