Some concerns remain as province prepares to return to school

With staff and students set to return to in-person learning as of Monday, school boards in Kingston and the surrounding area are still hoping to see more action from the province.

At Wednesday night's Limestone District School Board (LDSB) meeting, a motion was approved calling for the board's chair to write a letter to the Chief Medical Officer of Health, local Medical Officers of Health and the Minister of Education. 

The letter will call for nine individual measures to help ensure a safe return to schools, with mandatory vaccination for students being one such request.

Suzanne Ruttan, Chair of LDSB's Trustee Board, says the letter is currently being worked on and though it is expected to be completed in a timely fashion, they do not want to rush it. 

Ruttan says the letter is about making clear what the board wants to see in a safe return to school. 

"The trustees want to share information with public health, the Chief Medical Officer of Health and the Minister of Education what our priorities are," Ruttan said.

"This letter also demonstrates to our constituents in the community what our priorities are."

A limited number of spaces for virtual learning will be available in the short term, continuing through term one for elementary students and through quadmester two for secondary students. 

LDSB's Director of Education Krishna Burra says in the last two years, staff have become adept at pivoting, and are prepared to return to work as of Monday.

Burra says the requests are meant to reflect that there is always more that can be done in ensuring safety in schools.

"The motion the other night was really about having a safe situation in going back to schools," Burra said.

"There's always more that can be done to increase the feeling of comfort that people would have going back to school."

Burra added that on Friday morning Medical Officers of Health from both KFL&A and Hastings & Prince Edward County gave their support to the list of requests. 

He also says despite some complaints in the province that teachers have not been prioritized as far as receiving boosters, that has not seemed to be an issue with local educators. 

On Friday schools also received Rapid Antigen Testing (RAT) kits, with LDSB receiving nearly 40,000 that will be distributed in pairs to students and staff, and anyone with symptoms will require two negative tests to return to school. 

LDSB also told parents that students would be offered three ply masks, and that teachers would be receiving N95 masks for increased protection. 

The board asserts that the province should be on the hook for all pandemic-related expenses, and needs to continue to fund supplies and RAT kits. 

Changes to how schools report cases have drawn some criticism, with schools now only required to notify the Ministry of Education and public health after a 30 per cent absenteeism rate

That is among the concerns of nearby Algonquin and Lakeshore Catholic District School Board (ALCDSB), whose Chair Tom Dall expressed the board's "disappointment and frustration". 

In a letter to Education Minister Stephen Lecce, Dall says despite Lecce claiming otherwise, this decision was not made in consultation with staff and administration.

"Contrary to your comments on social media," the letter reads.

"There was absolutely no consultation with Trustee Associations, Directors of Education, or Unions for that matter on this significant change in practice."

Dall goes on to say that rural families with children attending ALCDSB schools face a disadvantage due to broadband access, and adequate funding is needed to support remote learning long term. 

Like Limestone, Dall and the ALCDSB also requested that COVID vaccinations be made mandatory for students, but additionally ask for the province to revert to its previous contact and case management system.

Although the request for mandatory vaccination has seen a bit of pushback, Kingston already boasts one of the highest vaccination rates in the province, with 60% of eligible adults having received their third dose and 65.2% of children aged 5-11 with one dose compared to the nearly 50% provincial average.

Story by Owen Fullerton, YGK News, for the Local Journalism Initiative