How Toronto Plans to Keep Schools Open Amid Its Second Lockdown

TORONTO — On Monday, as I was writing a news article about Canada’s enthusiasm for keeping schools open during the second wave of the coronavirus, an email arrived from my daughter’s high school alerting me that a student had tested positive and a grade-12 class had been asked to self-isolate.

It was the first time this happened since Toronto public schools finally reopened in mid-September.

ImageA school in Scarborough, an inner suburb of Toronto, in September. Despite Toronto’s new coronavirus restrictions, classes have remained open.
Credit…Carlos Osorio/Reuters

I had expected such news much earlier. Like many parents, I had feared schools would be petri dishes of the coronavirus. I predicted they would stay open no later than Canadian Thanksgiving and that my two children would be trapped once again at home with me and my husband — all of us driving one another nuts.

That, most happily, has not been the case.

There have been outbreaks in 83 Toronto schools, each with an average of five cases, according to Dr. Vinita Dubey, associate medical officer of health for Toronto. That is out of some 1,200 schools in the city — so about 7 percent.

But, unlike New York City, which responded to rising rates of community transmission by shutting down schools while keeping bars and restaurants open, the Ontario government has made the opposite decision: It shut down bars and restaurants in Toronto and two of its sprawling suburbs, but kept schools open.

“Ontario schools remain safe,” said Stephen Lecce, the education minister for the province, at a news conference on Thursday. “They remain safe even while we face increasing rates of community-based transmission.”

He vowed to “make sure we do whatever it takes to keep schools safe and to keep them open, which I think is an overwhelming societal imperative in this province and in this country.”

To that end, he announced more funding for school boards in hot spots and a program of testing asymptomatic students and staff in schools in four of the province’s hardest-hit areas — something his government first promised in the summer, and critics have been demanding for months.

“That’s great news but we heard the same thing in August,” said Ryan Imgrund, a high school science teacher and biostatistician in Newmarket, just north of Toronto. “I’ll believe it when I see it.”

Toronto is the biggest city in Canada and, in fact, its schools have among the strictest coronavirus safety rules in the country. All children are required to wear masks in school, including the young ones — which is not the case in most Canadian school boards. And class size for high school kids is capped around 15 — which in the case of my daughter means she takes most of her classes online and is in the physical school only a quarter of the time.

Credit…Pool photo by Nathan Danette

Each morning that my daughter and my son, who is in Grade 7, do physically go to school, they complete an online Covid-19 screening, verifying that they don’t have any coronavirus symptoms before arriving. If they do have symptoms, they are expected to stay home and, in most cases, get tested. Whenever a student tests positive, the public health unit swoops into the school to both contain the virus and investigate its spread, through testing and contact tracing, according to Dr. Dubey.

So far, she said, her office’s data shows that most children are infected at home, not at school.

“Schools are actually still a safer place for children to be,” Dr. Dubey said, noting that the positivity rate among Toronto’s teenagers is 7.5 percent — higher than the rate seen in schools.

She added: “If kids are not in school, they are going to be in the community more — at play dates, or the like, where Covid spreads. That’s part of the balance. At least in a school setting, they are socializing and getting an education, and it’s ‘controlled.’”

Many parents are not convinced. In Toronto, the percentage of children opting for online learning jumped to 33 percent in late October from 26 percent at the beginning of the school year, according to figures from the Toronto District School Board. In the suburbs of Mississauga and Brampton, the shift was even more pronounced, with nearly half of public elementary school students now attending classes virtually, according to the Canadian Press wire service.

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“Many, many, many families don’t have confidence in the plan put in place by this government,” said Kelly Iggers, a mother and teacher at an elementary school in Toronto who amassed more than 270,000 signatures on a petition demanding that the government reduce class sizes, which did not happen. “At this point, only a very small proportion of children are getting tested. We just don’t know how many cases are out there.”

She added, “The provincial government is claiming success based on an absence of data.”

Studies show about 30 percent of children with coronavirus are asymptomatic, said Dr. Dubey. So, the new testing in schools where there are no outbreaks should be revealing. It could confirm what public health officials and politicians have been saying — that schools are relatively safe, compared with Covid-19 spread in the community. But it could also confirm parents’ fears — that the virus is circulating more widely in schools than has been reported.

Staff at the Ministry of Education said that the information from the new testing would be publicly shared.

“It’s a promising development, and I am really looking forward to seeing some clearer data to show us what is happening in our schools,” Ms. Iggers said. “But the success of this measure will really depend on whether it is rolled out effectively, results are shared transparently and the government is willing to implement appropriate actions in response to the findings.”

Meanwhile, I have not heard anything more from my daughter’s school, which I’m assuming is good news. So she left for school again this morning — which made both of us really happy.

Credit…Elizabeth Wishart
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  • The Times’s art critic Jason Farago gives readers an incredible, intimate tour of an iconic painting that hangs in the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. Anyone who has studied the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, in Quebec City, will recognize “The Death of General Wolfe,” by Benjamin West. Jason calls the work the “origin story” of “Canadian history and American painting.”

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