Etches Supports a Return to In-Person Learning Despite Calls to Close Schools

By Charlie Senack, Barrhaven Independent 

Despite calls to step in and shut them down, Ottawa’s top Doctor says she supports schools opening in the Capital on Wednesday. 

In a statement sent out Sunday morning, Vera Etches says she evaluated the evidence and feels a return to in-person learning is what’s best for children, families, and the health of our community. 

“The level of the COVID-19 Omicron variant in our community is very high, so the chances that students and education staff will encounter COVID-19 outside of school is increased,” she wrote. “The information we have from throughout the pandemic is that schools being open is not a key reason for making the pandemic spread worse. In Ottawa, in December, with the Omicron variant circulating, the data showed that the COVID-19 rates grew in the community much faster than in the school population. Many of the introductions of COVID-19 into schools were related to transmission from social and sports activities outside of school.”

For weeks now Etches has been calling on Ottawa residents to put a pause on extra-curricular activities, and to no longer participate in or attend indoor sports games, or visit any indoor settings where there are lots of people. 

Etches says if schools were to close, she feels it would have a more negative impact on the spread of COVID-19 in our communities. 

“If schools do not re-open, there is the potential that this could result in more indoor gatherings of children and more community transmission as parents and caregivers may need to rely on others to watch their children for work or for their own mental health, which we saw with previous COVID-19 waves,” said Etches. 

Calls to Keep Schools Closed

On Dec. 31, a number of local teachers unions wrote to Etches, requesting that she take matters into her own hands and keep schools closed until a number of conditions could be met. They include: giving staff and students access to N95 masks, prioritizing education workers and students over the age of 12 for booster shots, and giving students aged 5-11 access to their second dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. 

The letter was co-signed by the Ottawa Carleton Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, the Ottawa Carleton Elementary Occasional Teachers’ Association, the Ottawa English Catholic Teachers’ Association, and various bargaining units of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, District 25.

Etches says keeping schools closed until more shots get into arms isn’t a realistic goal. 

“With an 8-week interval between doses and 61 per cent of children 5-11 immunized with one dose at this time, that timeline would mean too much missed school that causes known harms,” she said. “That said, I am working with the City of Ottawa’s Emergency Operations Centre to ensure there is ongoing access for children and youth to receive first and second doses. As well, the team is working to create a way to focus on immunizing childcare and education staff with booster doses while continuing to focus on increasing rates of vaccine coverage with booster doses in older adults.”

Ottawa top doctor also noted the negative impacts a lack of routine could cause for school-aged children.  Since the pandemic began, mental health challenges including: anxiety, depression and eating disorders have been on the rise in youth, which have also meant an increase in hospitalizations. 

The letter wrote to Etches acknowledged this as a concern, but noted they were in full support of a return to in-person learning once it’s safe.  

“While we are all concerned about the mental health of students, a significant contribution to the stress and anxiety around school has been ongoing and unpredictable change,” the letter from the unions says. “Having the measures above in place as prerequisites for a return to in-person learning will help to ensure that in-person learning is sustainable and safe in the long-term.”

Rumours are now circulating that Ontario may intact new measures to deal with the rapid spread of COVID-19 in the province. Some sources say a rare Sunday cabinet meeting will take place to discuss dropping down to stage 2 in the provinces re-opening plan, which would keep schools open, but close down restaurants and drop non-essential businesses down to 25 per cent capacity. This has not yet been confirmed.

On the first day if 2022, Ontario broke a new single-day record for new infections, with 18,445 new cases. On January 2, the province reported a slightly lower number at 16,714 new cases, but in reality it’s expected to be much higher due to a lack of testing. 

On January 1, Ottawa recorded 1,482 new COVID-19 cases, which in actuality is also much higher.