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Ontario to stop collecting COVID-19 numbers from school boards, suspend reporting of cases

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The Ontario government will stop collecting COVID-19 numbers from school boards and suspend reporting of new coronavirus infections among students and staff starting next week.

The change was detailed in a memo from the Ministry of Education sent to school board officials on Thursday, the same day the province announced that it was delaying the return to in-person classes for two days – from Jan. 3 to Jan. 5.

"Given recent changes to case and contact management by the Ministry of Health and OCMOH (Office of the Chief Medical Officer of Health), the ministry will suspend reporting of COVID-19 cases in schools," the memo obtained by CP24 read.

While case counts will no longer be posted, the ministry said it will continue to report school and child-care closures due to COVID-19.

"Further information will be shared shortly with school boards on reporting expectations of absences in schools and school closures due to COVID-19, in conjunction with educational and pediatric leaders," the memo read.

The new policy was not part of Thursday's back-to-school announcement made by Ontario's chief medical officer of health Dr. Kieran Moore.

In a letter to parents Friday, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) confirmed that the Ministry of Education "will no longer be collecting COVID-19 case numbers from school boards."

"The TDSB, which is committed to keeping families as informed as possible, is currently reviewing how reporting and notification may happen moving forward."

Ontario has been reporting COVID-19 cases in schools for the last 18 months. Between Aug. 2 and Dec. 24 of 2021, 12,062 COVID-19 school-related cases were reported, according to the provincial reporting website. Of those, 10,582 infections were among students.

Also, in the memo, the ministry said the dismissal classes and cohorts may no longer be needed even after a positive case is confirmed. Students and staff experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 or are confirmed cases are still expected to self-isolate regardless of vaccination status.

The ministry also laid out in the memo steps on how school boards can minimize school closures due to operational reasons related to "high rates of expected absenteeism" among staff.

One of the steps is allowing school boards to "combine classes and assign students to different classes to ensure supervision."

Schools can also introduce "rotating, planned remote learning days for schools if needed, up to one day per week," the memo read.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce defended his government's approach earlier on Friday, saying they have put an increased focus on improved ventilation and masking.

"Schools are literally some of the safest places in our community because we have distancing, cohorting, screening at the front-end quality masking, ventilation improvements and access to take home PCR tests for symptomatic students and staff. It's going to make a difference and I appreciate that we all have an angst about the Omicron variant because we all want this to be behind us. But by increasing our immunization efforts, by wearing quality masks and by continuing to be vigilant as a society, I think we will get through the next few weeks," he said in an interview with CP24.

"They will be tough, but it's worth the effort to get our kids in school, to keep them safe and to keep them learning."

The Opposition called the move "terrifying" and slammed Premier Doug Ford for "trying to hide the damage, and the danger of his choices."

"Ford's attempt to cover up COVID numbers in schools is going to hurt kids, families, teachers and education workers," NDP Education critic Marit Stiles said in a statement.

"Parents have to decide to send their kids to school not knowing if the school has a high number of COVID cases. If we can't track where the virus is, we can't fight it. Ford is treating students and staff like pawns in his attempt to hide rising COVID numbers."

- with files from Chris Fox and Chris Herhalt

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