On 4 December 2020, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) announced the temporary closure of Thorncliffe Park Public School (TPPS) amidst COVID-19 concerns. The decision came after a testing blitz uncovered nineteen new cases among students and staff on 29 November 2020. The decision was likely also influenced by the refusal to work of three teachers at TPPS on 3 December 2020 .
According to TDSB spokesperson Ryan Bird, TPPS was advised to close until 9 December 2020 to allow Toronto Public Health to complete an investigation of the COVID-19 cases at the school . “Every single time you get a COVID-19 case at a school, it’s not just a case. There are unique circumstances around each case that Toronto Public Health looks into as part of their contact tracing,” Bird said.
Families received notice of the closure through a letter from Principal Jeff Crane. “Based on this advice [from Toronto Public Health], students and staff will not be permitted to enter the building until at least that time. We will share more information once we have a date for students and staff to return to school,” Crane wrote. In the meantime, classes will run remotely and COVID-19 tests will continue to be conducted for the remaining staff and students .
Thorncliffe Park Public School is located in one of the hardest-hit neighborhoods in Toronto; the current test positivity rate in the Thorncliffe community is 16% . When the TDSB announced the closure of the East York school, nearly four hundred students and twenty-seven teachers from a combined eighteen classes were already self-isolating at home. As of 3 December 2020, there have been twenty-three reported cases among students and three cases among staff members at TPPS. This brings the total number of reported cases at the school to twenty-six, which is roughly 4% of the school’s population. The number of reported cases is expected to increase as tests continue to be processed.
The nineteen cases revealed on 29 November 2020 were detected through a voluntary asymptomatic testing program recently introduced by the Ontario government. The program was first announced by Education Minister Stephen Lecce on 26 November 2020 following updates to testing guidelines in Ontario, which reversed an earlier decision to not test asymptomatic people unless they were connected to a known case. The updated guidelines have opened asymptomatic testing in certain hotspot regions, though testing symptomatic individuals remain the priority . TPPS was the first site of implementation for the program, and over five hundred tests were taken through the program over a three school day period .
While the implementation of asymptomatic testing for schools has been applauded by the general public, many are saying that these measures are still not enough to protect communities from COVID-19. Many also noted that TPPS would not have closed if the voluntary testing had not taken place and that more measures needed to be introduced.
In a news release on 30 November 2020, the NDP called the program a “half measure” and encouraged Ford to continue to expand the program to all schools in hard-hit neighbourhoods . “Doug Ford is trying to save a buck by under-serving the hardest-hit areas,” said NDP Deputy Leader and Brampton Centre MPP Sara Singh in a news release on 30 November 2020. She added, “He has been refusing to send extra help to hot spots because he wants to do things on the cheap. That’s resulting in longer, deeper lockdowns and more devastating illness. We need to help to end this nightmare, and stop the virus from hurting our loved ones.”
The NDP are not the only ones who feel that the provincial government’s COVID-19 response needs to be strengthened. Following the closure of TPPS., Toronto Public Health (TPH) made major changes to their own COVID-19 regulations . The Ontario Government currently requires children with a runny nose or sore throat to stay home for 24 hours but does not require testing if symptoms are shown to improve. The public health board decided to deviate from the provincial recommendations and added runny noses and sore throats to their list of COVID-19 symptoms that would force students to stay home from school. Now, students with one or more symptoms will have to either self isolate and get tested for COVID-19 or stay home for ten days regardless of their conditions. Household members are also required to isolate if a student has a symptom. For complete information on when students who have had symptoms can return to school, see this Toronto Public Health fact sheet .
In response to the batch of positive cases and feedback from public health professionals, Lecce reaffirmed that his ministry will work hard to prevent the further spread of the coronavirus in schools . “We still have work to do,” he acknowledged during a press briefing on 30 November 2020. He added, “The fact that hundreds of children, students and staff have gotten tested in conjunction with the local public health unit I think underscores that the plan in place is working hard to mitigate any further spread: identifying COVID cases, isolating them or moving them from the school, so we don’t have spreaders within the school.”
The voluntary asymptomatic testing program is projected to continue until 18 December 2020. The other TDSB schools set to be tested in the program are Marc Garneau Collegiate Institute and Valley Park Middle School . Lester B. Pearson Collegiate Institute in Scarborough, three Catholic schools under the TCDSB, and thirty schools in the York Region will also be tested.