Ontario students return to virtual class as NDP calls for widespread testing in schools

Thousands of Ontario elementary and secondary school students will return to remote learning on Monday and the Official Opposition is calling on the province to conduct widespread COVID-19 testing of children and teens as case counts rise.

Marit Stiles, NDP MPP for Davenport and the party’s education critic, said in an interview with CBC Toronto that the Ontario government doesn’t know how many students in publicly-funded schools are asymptomatic across the province. A “comprehensive testing strategy” is needed, she said.

“If we are going to ensure that our schools, and the children that rely on them and staff that work there and their families are protected, as COVID increases, and if we are going to ensure that schools can reopen in the safest way possible, the government needs to come through now with additional supports and a strategy,” Stiles said on Sunday.

Stiles was reacting to an open letter to parents released by Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce on the weekend. 

The letter received backlash on Twitter for suggesting, among other things, that the government provided every teacher with mandatory training on remote learning before the school year began. Stiles said that claim was “deliberately, I think, misleading” and “simply not true.”

In the letter, Lecce reminds students, parents and guardians of the following dates first announced by the government in a Dec. 21 news release:

  • Elementary students, enrolled in in-person learning, will learn remotely for the first week of January, but will return to class on Jan. 11.
  • Secondary students, enrolled in in-person learning in northern public health units, will return to class on Jan. 11 as well.
  • Secondary students, enrolled in in-person learning in the rest of the province, will return to class on Jan. 25.
  • Elementary and secondary schools currently enrolled in remote learning will continue to learn remotely throughout January.

Lecce said in the letter that “schools are not a source of rising community transmission,” according to medical experts. He said a provincial lockdown, imposed on the entire province on Dec. 26, has helped to ensure that schools remain safe.

In an open letter to parents, Education Minister Stephen Lecce says: ‘We believe so strongly that schools are essential to the well-being, mental health and development of a child, and therefore, must be safeguarded at all costs to ensure they can remain open for safe in-class instruction.’ (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

“We believe so strongly that schools are essential to the well-being, mental health and development of a child, and therefore, must be safeguarded at all costs to ensure they can remain open for safe in-class instruction,” the letter says.

“I want to reassure parents that according to the province’s leading doctors, our schools are safe, with eight out of 10 schools in this province having no cases of COVID-19 and based on board reporting, 99.64 per cent of students have not reported a case of COVID-19,” the letter continues.

But Stiles said the 99.64 per cent figure is likely not accurate given that the province doesn’t know how many students are asymptomatic. 

“We actually don’t really know the number of asymptomatic cases in the population in schools,” she said.

Marit Stiles, NDP MPP for Davenport and the party’s education critic, says the Ontario government doesn’t know how many students are asymptomatic across the province. A ‘comprehensive testing strategy’ is needed, she says. (Cole Burston/Canadian Press)

Stiles noted that there has been testing of students in some schools in hard hit areas. In Toronto, for example, targeted testing of students and staff in schools in the neighbourhood of Thorncliffe Park led to closures before the holidays.

She said the province has dug in with its plan that would see children returning to large classes with no additional supports, but that plan is not workable as the pandemic continues.

Stiles said additional supports are needed for families as children go back to remote learning and that could take the form of providing parents with paid sick or care days in the event their children get sick.

In addition to “a broad asymptomatic testing regime in schools,” the NDP is calling for class sizes capped at 15, school buses capped at 50 per cent capacity, and better ventilation in schools.

A Toronto school appears in the background behind a snowy fence. (Patrick Morrell/CBC)

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