Letter from Dr. Vera Etches to Ottawa school boards

Letter from Dr. Vera Etches to Ottawa school boards
Posted on 04/06/2021
Letter from Dr. Vera Etches to Ottawa school boards

Today, the OCDSB and other Ottawa school boards received a letter from Dr. Vera Etches, Ottawa Medical Officer of Health.

She writes, “I ask that teachers, administrators, school staff, parents and students all continue to do their part to strictly follow the COVID-19 precautions in schools and to limit close contacts before and after school to members of their household. This is not the time to let up on our diligence to keep each other safe.”

Given the heightened concern at this time, we wanted to share the full letter with you below.

Dr. Etches also attended the April 6th OCDSB Committee of the Whole meeting, where she answered questions from trustees. A recording of Dr. Etches’ presentation at the meeting is available on our OCDSB YouTube channel.

Dear Directors of Education of Ottawa school boards, 

On April 4, 2021, a letter written by myself and the Medical Officers of Health in Toronto and Peel, was sent to the Chief Medical Officer of Health of Ontario, Dr. David Williams, requesting a province-wide stay-at-home order and strengthened public health measures. This request was made because I am concerned the level of COVID-19 in our community is giving rise to increasing hospitalizations and the capacity of our healthcare system will be stretched to manage the demand on intensive care units if community transmission is not slowed. Stronger measures than are currently in place have been needed to decrease transmission in similar situations. 

In my letter, which is now public, I asked for consideration of moving schools to online learning, where local jurisdictions’ school outbreaks are significant and capacity to manage is greatly stretched. I am writing to clarify that I am not asking for schools in Ottawa to close now. The situation with COVID-19 and schools in Ottawa is currently manageable, as

-          73% of schools have no people with an active COVID-19 infection where there was an exposure in school, and

-          98% of schools are free from an outbreak.

The vast majority of COVID-19 in schools originates with community exposures. Situations identified in schools where there was a possible exposure do not usually lead to transmission in schools. Child-to-staff and child-to-child transmissions remain rare in the school setting. At this time, schools are not a major driver of transmission of COVID19 and so closing them alone will not turn this current COVID-19 resurgence around. Though variants of concern mean we need to be more careful to avoid transmission, the local situation with variants in schools hasn’t been significantly more difficult to control. When Ottawa Public Health ensured everyone in a dismissed school cohort was tested for COVID-19 after a potential exposure to a variant of concern, no higher rates of transmission were seen in the exposed cohorts. There have been outbreaks associated with variants of concern and there have been situations where the variants of concern have not spread in schools.

What is most needed is to decrease the nonessential places where people are coming into close contact with others. Until fewer businesses are deemed essential and people get the message to stay at home, closing schools may inadvertently lead to additional gatherings in environments with fewer control measures in place.

I ask that teachers, administrators, school staff, parents and students all continue to do their part to strictly follow the COVID-19 precautions in schools and to limit close contacts before and after school to members of their household. This is not the time to let up on our diligence to keep each other safe. Please reinforce the daily screening and ask people to consider if any symptom of COVID19 is present before they enter their school. Adults, especially, should be supported to take care to maintain distance between each other in staff rooms and during break times with their colleagues. 

Ottawa Public Health will continue to monitor the situation daily and, working with the Province, will assess the need for any school closures and give you notice as soon as possible. Keeping schools open remains a priority for the health of the population, as we know children and families rely on the supports provided by schools to ensure they can work and their basic needs are met. We have heard from parents the significant levels of distress that arise for families when schools are closed. However, if the number of community cases continues to rise, a stay-at-home order that includes school closures may be necessary. If this is required, we will strive to give as much advanced notice as possible, to allow schools and parents to make the necessary adjustments. For the next few months, we need to keep up with these measures, to get us to a day when enough of us are protected with vaccine to enable us to better manage COVID-19 in the community.

And, speaking of vaccines, I continue to advocate for rapidly securing more vaccine so our vaccine campaigns can progress to achieve sufficient coverage to suppress COVID-19 transmission. School staff are a priority for vaccination, and we continue to vaccinate the population in Ottawa by highest levels of priority, as outlined by the Provincial government. At this point, we still need to protect older people and those with the highest risk health conditions. I look forward to working with you on protecting education staff. These days will come, and until much more of our population is protected, I am thankful for your commitment to public health measures in schools.

We will see this through. 

Sincerely, 

Dr. Vera Etches, MD, CCFP. MHSc, FRCPC Medical Officer of Health, City of Ottawa

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