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E-BLAST: Back to School

I’m afraid that we all have to care about back-to-school this year, even if our own children are grown or we have none at all. Children across Ontario are heading back to school right as we head into the fourth wave of the global pandemic. How our province handles this return to the classroom could well determine whether we beat this fourth wave or have to deal with the very dire COVID-19 projection numbers released by the Ontario government’s advisory Science Table yesterday. We need to do whatever we can to get this reopening right and keep school outbreaks down.

The City of Toronto does not have jurisdiction over schools, which have their own governance system and are completely funded by the Province. However, we think of Toronto’s school boards as our municipal-level brothers and sisters. We at the City know we should do everything in our power to help our school boards succeed. That’s why we’ve taken two big steps to help keep our schools safe this fall: deploying Toronto Public Health to monitor schools and aid in vaccination efforts, and adding additional service to the TTC to make students’ journeys to and from school safer.

At Toronto Public Health (TPH), preparations are underway to support screening, testing, and vaccination efforts in schools. While it is the Ontario Ministry of Education that sets out health and safety measures in schools, TPH supports school boards in creating the safest environment possible in their schools. In addition to masking, handwashing, sanitizing protocols, and COVID-19 screening for staff, students, and visitors, TPH has recommended additional measures to keep schools safe. TPH recommends that junior and senior kindergarten students wear masks indoors. They also stress masking and physical distancing in music classes where the virus could spread more easily.

TPH has been carefully monitoring COVID-19 activity across our city since the pandemic began. In the fall, this monitoring will include assessing case numbers and outbreaks in Toronto schools. TPH has a team of 102 public health nurses who will provide strong support to our schools. If a COVID case is confirmed at a school, principals will dismiss the impacted cohorts and TPH will conduct a thorough investigation to determine the potential risk to the rest of the school population.

Another essential element in keeping our schools safe is regular COVID-19 testing. We know that kids under 12 aren’t currently able to receive the vaccine, so we need to keep a close eye on cases to ensure they don’t spread rapidly. TPH has partnered with Ontario Health and local hospital partners to provide testing support to schools. This includes an expanded take-home test program that makes is easier and less invasive for kids to get tested if they have symptoms.

For students age 12 and older, it’s essential to achieve the highest vaccination rates possible. TPH is going to continue to work closely with schools, school boards and healthcare partners to facilitate easy access to vaccines. This will include setting up mobile vaccination clinics in schools for youth and their families, particularly in communities with low vaccination rates and higher COVID-19 risk.

While it’s important that youth get vaccinated, anyone who interacts closely with children needs to get vaccinated too. This is especially true for parents, caregivers, and educators who interact with children under the age of 12 who are not yet eligible to receive the vaccine. This is the best way to protect our young children, friends, families, and other loved ones from experiencing severe illness and complications from COVID-19.

If all the talk about vaccine passports and kids at risk has helped you decide that now is the time to get vaccinated but you don’t know where to start, feel free to call my office. We are a friendly voice from your neighbourhood and we’re happy to help walk you through the steps to get your vaccine. Toronto Public Health will be hard at work this fall helping schools implement safety measures, setting up vaccine clinics, and monitoring the daily COVID situation in our schools. While we know these in-school measures are vital, there’s another piece that’s essential for keeping our students safe—transit.

We know that high school and post-secondary students in particular will begin adding bodies to the transit system as they return to the classroom. The TTC has already begun preparing for September crowding. We want to see ridership increase on our transit system but efforts must be made to keep everyone safe. To accommodate the increased demand our transit system will face when school starts next week, the TTC is:

  • Increasing service system-wide to support the expected increase in ridership, including 25% more subway trains on Line 1 and Line 2 at peak times on weekdays.

  • Deploying an additional 180 special school trips to manage anticipated high school student ridership and communicating with school boards to determine hot spots, student volumes, and start and dismissal times.

  • Increasing or restoring service on nearly 30 bus routes that serve post-secondary institutions and other major transit corridors, and implementing new periods of express service on four routes.

  • Restoring service on nearly all 900 series express routes and introducing new service on the 938 Highland Creek Express, adding new weekday midday and early evening service on 960 Steeles West Express, and new weekday midday express service on 941 Keele Express. Additional express routes are planned for October.

  • Maintaining service flexibility, adjusting service to meet demand, and continuing to operate demand-responsive bus service to supplement scheduled service.

Just as at school, the best way to stay safe on a busy bus is to wear a mask and be fully vaccinated. I know many students are itching to get back into the classroom after a year of mostly virtual learning. It’s important that our kids follow all the necessary public health guidelines to keep themselves, their families, and their friends safe, both inside the classroom and on the bus.

The rest of us also have a role to play in beating this fourth wave and keeping schools open for our kids. Experts at the Ontario Science Table have told us that we could see daily caseloads spike significantly in October if we don’t follow public health guidelines, up our vaccination rate, and reduce our contacts. We can avoid a catastrophic fourth wave if we cooperate with masking, screening, and passport policies wherever they are required. None of these measures are easy for those who have to impose them. They do so to keep us all healthy.

We also need to advocate to our Provincial government to spare no expense in keeping our schools and our kids safe this year. We know that virtual school has had an impact on many children’s mental health over the course of the pandemic. We need to ensure that our kids have a safe return to the classroom and get to stay in those classrooms. Know that here at the City, we are doing everything we can to support our students as they finally get back to school.


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