THUNDER BAY – Lakehead Public Schools is warning parents to expect school closures as students and staff get set to return to the classroom on Monday.
In a letter to parents, the board says schools have already been impacted by staffing shortages and the return will likely lead to unmanageable staff shortages going forward, which they expect will lead to school closures and classroom cancellations.
The province, which on Wednesday confirmed classes would resume in person on Monday, said an outbreak won’t be declared until there is a 30 per cent absentee rate at schools.
Dr. Janet DeMille, medical officer of health at the Thunder Bay District Health Unit, said she understands there will be some anxiety sending children back to the classroom, especially with vaccination rates in the five- to 11-year-old age category barely topping 50 per cent – and four-year-olds unable to get vaccinated until they turn five – but she’s in favour of having students learn in person.
Classrooms have been virtual since the end of Christmas break, which was pushed back three additional days for students.
“I am glad that they are reopening, because I think it’s an important place for children to be to do the work that they have, which is to go to school. However, I think the schools are going to have a lot of challenges, just as we as a community have to navigate COVID,” DeMille said.
Parents have a huge role to play to ensure classrooms stay open.
Following COVID-19 guidelines is key, DeMille said.
“There is an Ontario screening tool that will help guide parents in the decision-making process,“ she said, reminding parents that anyone showing symptoms, or living with someone showing symptoms or in isolation, should stay home and not attend classes.
“I think we all need to be familiar with what we need to do and parents have a particular role that they need to keep their kids home if the screening instructions require that – and then to manage them at home.”
The situation is not getting better in the District of Thunder Bay, and DeMille estimates it will be another four to six weeks, potentially through the end of February, before numbers start to fall considerably.
Omicron is doing a real number on the city, with nearly 1,300 cases recorded through the first 13 days of the year.
It’s inevitable it will get into the schools, she said.
This is why it’s so important for parents to get students vaccinated, which can help protect the entire family. While vaccinations don’t necessarily prevent people from getting COVID-19, particularly the Omicron variant, they do minimize the effects of the virus, even in children, who tend to suffer less if they contract COVID-19.
DeMille said she is concerned at the slowdown of vaccination uptake in the five to 11 group, which increased just 1.6 percentage points last week.
“Certainly it does suggest there are a lot of parents out there that haven’t chosen to get their kids immunized and I would presume some of that is some hesitancy or not necessarily seeing value in getting their children immunized,” DeMille said.
“It actually can be fairly mild in children ... and if parents are hearing that, they may not be too concerned about their children getting COVID.”
DeMille said millions of child doses have been handed out and it’s proven to be safe.
“But as we continue to navigate this current surge of COVID, and any future surge, it’s really beneficial to have some immunity that comes from the vaccination. There are really no significant side effects to these vaccines. They’re very safe, they’re very effective and it protects not only that child from more significant outcomes, but it will protect people around that child.”
The health unit, in co-ordination with local school boards, will be holding vaccination clinics aimed at five- to 11-year-olds later this month, at the CLE Heritage building.