“We have crazy outbreaks happening. And none of it is reported.” Education Ministry accused of not reporting COVID cases in special needs settings

Education Minister ducks question of why outbreaks are not being reported

A special needs educator in Simcoe County fears going into work every day as they say COVID-19 is spreading among students and co-workers alike. They claim the subsequent outbreaks are not being reported, Onatario’s Education Ministry has done little to prevent the spread, and it is having a huge impact locally and across the province.

The educator, who wishes to remain anonymous, told Barrie 360 the provincial government is vastly underreporting COVID-19 cases and outbreaks within those schools closed to most students, but open for special needs education. “If you go on the Ontario Ministry website of reporting school outbreaks, because Simcoe County is not technically back in, so regular students are learning online, none of our numbers are actually being reported accurately,” they told Barrie 360. “We have crazy outbreaks happening. And none of it is reported.” A look at the website in question verifies that there is no mention of any school board in Simcoe – Muskoka despite known outbreaks at schools within.

The ministry is also not reporting on any other school within hotspot regions such as Toronto and Peel Region. Only those school boards in regions that have been permitted to resume in-person learning are listed among the cases listed on the province’s website.

Janet Bigham is Simcoe County’s President of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario and points out local school boards are not publicly reporting these cases either, as instructed by Queen’s Park. “The board has not, during the month of January, done any reporting about what is happening with students and staff that are in a school building. And that’s a direction coming from the Ministry of Education,” Bigham told Barrie 360. “If I was a parent, and I had been monitoring this website on a daily basis, I would have assumed there are no cases in any Simcoe County school or facility. And this is good news that, when we go back, there have been no cases, so it’s safe to send my child back. But it is not the case.”

The Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit does not make specific case-by-case information public to protect the identity of those infected, but the educator says it leaves them completely in the dark. “The Simcoe (Muskoka District) health unit basically has said they do not have the authority to report outbreak cases, and they have the responsibility to protect the privacy and maintain confidentiality. So, at some point, my safety is being trumped by confidentiality,” the educator said. Barrie 360 reached out to the health unit, which pointed out it does report on every case within Simcoe and Muskoka, including the age and hometown of the case in question. It does makes public the number of educational setting outbreaks in the region; as of February 1, there were two educational outbreaks listed on the health unit’s site, one in a public school, the other in a high school, with no further detail provided.

Neither of these were included in the Education Ministry’s daily reporting.

There are approximately 230 students with special needs attending Simcoe County District School Board schools, and 127 attending classes within the Simcoe Muskoka Catholic District School Board. That means there are over 350 students in the region with close-contact needs. Between the two boards, there are over 350 staff providing in-person instruction and support to these students. “Every morning, I get up and I kiss my own kids goodbye. And I spend a significant portion of my day with somebody else’s kids, keeping them safe, teaching them the skills that they need to do to make it through this pandemic,” added the educator.

The educator says many of their peers in special education have voiced concerns for their students. “Some of the health and hygiene things that we do with just our regular students is unfortunately lost in these students. So, that is a major safety concern that’s been voiced to the Province of Ontario, to the school boards, to Minister Lecce, to the Ministry of Health, and the Labour Board as well.” The educator says it is felt these concerns have not been heard.

The educator says all this is having a huge impact on morale. “There are record numbers of stress leaves, safety leaves, just people that feel that they’re in an environment that they’re not safe. We also have educators that are taking leaves of absence. They have children at home that are learning at home online. But then they’re being asked to report to school.” The educator says despite provincial promises of adequate emergency daycare, it is very much lacking for teachers. It has contributed to a number of vacancies in education settings. “There are now record numbers of leaves of absences and mental health absences,” they added. “I can tell you that people are holding on by a thread.”

Barrie 360 spoke with Education Minister Stephen Lecce to ask why these cases are not being publicly reported. He did not answer the question but rather stressed how important it is to have children back in the classroom to begin with. “They need predictability, they need to have routine restored,” Lecce told Barrie 360. “We wanted to ensure that they had that consistency. And we made that decision based on the voices from a variety of special education community and advocates and stakeholders that said, ‘Look, you’ve got to make sure that that is allowed.’ That’s what we have done.”

Barrie 360’s Ian MacLennan asking Education Minister Stephen Lecce why outbreaks among special needs students and teachers aren’t being reported

The educator didn’t buy this response. “He came nowhere near answering the question that was asked of him,” they said. “He went on to say how it’s important for kids to be in school, he never once talked about any of the enhanced safety measures.” The educator says, despite plenty of talk from the Ministry of bringing in enhanced measures, none have been seen. “This is our fourth week back. I have not seen one new enhancement. We were given goggles our second day back. But that’s the only enhancement.”

RELATED: ONTARIO TO EXPAND TARGETED ASYMPTOMATIC COVID-19 TESTING FOR BOTH STUDENTS AND STAFF

“Minister Lecce is making all these grand announcements about money and all these things, but it could be no further from the truth about what he’s saying and what is actually being implemented. There are no enhanced screenings, there are no enhanced measures,” the educator continued. “We have people that are potentially going to be infected this week, next week. They don’t care. There is nothing that they have done to support this transition back to school.”

Meanwhile, Minister Lecce said on Monday it is unclear when all students within Simcoe County would be permitted to return to the physical classroom, but later said via Twitter an announcement should be expected on Wednesday.