COVID-19: MLHU clarifies new rules on reporting absenteeism in schools – London
Regional health officials are shedding light on how a number of Ontario’s recently announced return to in-person learning preparations will play out in London and Middlesex County.
On Wednesday, Education Minister Stephen Lecce unveiled the province’s latest plans for getting kids back in classrooms amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Among them were new rules for reporting absenteeism in schools, which would see public health units receive the data directly from schools with parents and guardians only notified if a certain absentee threshold is met.
During a media briefing hosted by the Middlesex-London Health Unit (MLHU) on Thursday, acting medical officer of health Dr. Alex Summers clarified that the province’s notification threshold is a 30 per cent change to the baseline absentee rate of a school.
“It’s not irregular for 10 per cent of a school to be absent on any given day or throughout any given week. What we will be looking for, or what will be reported to the public health unit, is if that 10 per cent rises to something like 40 per cent,” Summers said.
“What we’re really looking for is a rapid, or very quick, increase in absenteeism in any given school, and at that point in time, we would work with the school board to understand how we can support that school board and that school in minimizing ongoing risk.”
The spirit of the policy, Summers says, is to be able to alert the school community that “something’s happening” when the time is right, however the MLHU won’t be privy to COVID-19 case data among staff and students due to a lack of testing capacity in Ontario.
Late last year, the province switched gears to reserve PCR testing for more at-risk populations and focus on hospitalization data for COVID-19. On Tuesday, the Ministry of Health said PCR testing would be used in “limited circumstances” for school-based populations, such as when staff and students become symptomatic while at school.
This means parents and guardians won’t know for certain whether a sharp increase in absenteeism is tied to a COVID-19 outbreak.
Summers added that school closures won’t be driven by public health decisions, but rather the operational impacts of absences.
The provincial government has said parents and guardians will be able to access data on absenteeism and school closures on the Ontario website, with that data being made available on Jan. 24.
Summers says the MLHU is working with school boards in the region to determine how best to present this data locally.
“It may be best coming from the school boards, it may be best coming from us, so we just have to sort out the details there,” Summers said.
As for the province’s plans to launch school-based vaccination clinics, Summers says the MLHU is working with school boards “to understand what makes sense” with those clinics likely arriving in February.
“Our initial focus right now remains on ensuring access through mass vaccination clinics and our mobile teams will actually be out in our community, focusing on our homeless and under-housed community, starting next week.”
Elsewhere, the MLHU continues its targeted efforts to vaccinate local educators and child-care staff, a directive that was also handed down by the provincial government.
A unique gateway for this group has been established on the health unit’s online booking portal, where those eligible will have access to thousands of vaccine appointments that have been set aside for them.
London Health Sciences Centre has made space for the cohort at its occupational health clinics and a number of primary care providers will also be running pop-up clinics in the region, according to Summers.
Pharmacies at select Real Canadian Superstores will also host clinics for educators and child-care staff on Friday between 4 p.m. and 9 p.m. The London locations are the Real Canadian Superstores at 825 Oxford St. E. and 1205 Oxford St. W. and an appointment is required to attend these clinics.
For all of these options, educators and child-care staff will need to bring proof of employment to their vaccine appointment to show they qualify.
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