Over the past week, which saw students in Ontario return to school buildings, Ottawa parent Katya Duhamel has been regularly updating a website with the number of positive COVID-19 cases among students and staff. She does so once in the morning, again for a few minutes during her lunch break, and then after she tucks her six-year-old into bed for the night.
Ms. Duhamel, who works in information technology, created the tracker in her city that allows families to self-report COVID-19 symptoms or confirmed cases in their children’s schools or daycares.
While she continues with her efforts, the provincial government has abandoned notifying families of COVID-19 infections in schools.
“I’m not a health professional. I’m not an expert. But I feel like this is information everybody has a right to know: the educators, the bus drivers, the people who are going into the school, the students. I feel it’s critical that we have this information,” Ms. Duhamel said.
“It’s not right that they are not tracking this information.”
In recent days, parents in several parts of the province have shared information on COVID-19 school cases in Facebook groups and other social-media platforms. It’s not the first time they’ve stepped in to help keep their children safe: Last year, some parents organized rapid testing in their school communities. The Ontario government blocked those efforts, but recently made rapid tests available to staff and students.
The worry with parents tracking cases is that it could lead to “misinformation, misinterpretations, alienation of children and families,” said Susy Hota, medical director of infection prevention and control at Toronto’s University Health Network. Parents, unlike public health, are not trained in contact tracing.
Recent government policy changes means that more reliable PCR lab tests aren’t available to most students and staff. Schools are relying on rapid tests.
“I can understand wanting to know. … In the current landscape, I don’t know how you can possibly have accurate information about what’s going on,” Dr. Hota said.
She added: “The bottom line to me is if kids are sick and they’re staying home and isolating as they should, and their families are isolating as they should, that’s the most important thing.”
Under new Ontario guidelines, families will only be notified by public-health authorities when their school’s absence rate reaches 30 per cent. It is unclear if that threshold would trigger a school to close temporarily.
The province is no longer posting school COVID-19 cases on its website, and it does not require school boards to do so, either. Instead, it is reporting absence rates for students and staff, which parents and educators have said is not useful in assessing risk in classrooms. Adults and children could be absent for several reasons, including isolation because of illness or a religious holiday.
Caitlin Clark, a spokeswoman for Education Minister Stephen Lecce, said in a statement on Wednesday that the government wants students to remain in class, which is important to their academic achievement as well as their physical and mental health. She did not address why COVID-19 cases are not presented separately in the absence data.
Some school boards, including the Toronto Catholic District School Board and the Durham District School Board, have continued tracking COVID-19 cases on their websites. The Toronto District School Board said principals would notify families if there is a positive case in their child’s class.
Shameela Shakeel, a parent in York Region, has been tracking school cases since September, 2020, on her Facebook group, which has grown to 5,200 members. Families and educators fill out a form that she then pulls together into a database each night. Ms. Shakeel tries to report only confirmed cases. “None of us want schools closed. We want the schools safe,” she said.
Ms. Shakeel feels she is providing a community service that helps parents make more informed decisions about sending their children to school. The province’s absence data does little to inform families of COVID-19 cases, she added.
“With everything, a lot of burden has fallen on parents and educators and students to fill these gaps,” Ms. Shakeel said.
“On the one hand, I think it’s great that we have communities pulling together to do these things. But we shouldn’t have to.”
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