A trustee with Ottawa’s largest school boards believes a potential return to the classroom at the end of the month could coincide with a mass COVID-19 vaccination campaign for the city’s teenagers.
After Health Canada approved the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for those aged 12 and over last week, Ontario Premier Doug Ford said Thursday that the province’s teenagers would become eligible for their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine during the week of May 31.
Teens aged 12 to 17 as well as their family members who haven’t gotten the jab yet will be able to book appointments for the Pfizer vaccine then, including at dedicated youth and family clinics for the weeks of June 14 and 21.
Ford did not outline a plan Thursday for a return to in-class learning. He said schools will remain closed until at least June 2 under Ontario’s extended stay-at-home order in an effort to clamp down on COVID-19 levels in the province.
But Ottawa’s medical of health Dr. Vera Etches said Wednesday that declining coronavirus rates in the nation’s capital could warrant a regional reopening of schools by the end of May, subject to the Ministry of Education’s approval.
Mark Fisher, a trustee with the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, told Global News on Thursday that he’d like to see kids get a month back in the classroom before the end of the school year for the sake of their mental health.
“We’re seeing the positive trends, but as Dr. Etches said yesterday, we need to see those numbers come down even more,” he said.
“If we can get the numbers in the right place, it’s a real possibility.”
If students return to schools around the same time they become eligible for vaccination, Fisher sees a logical role for schools themselves to play in the process.
“High schools and elementary schools, at a certain age group, already play a role working with public health providers in delivering vaccines to students, so there’s a long history in doing that,” he said.
Dr. Trevor Arnason, Ottawa’s associate medical officer of health, said in a press conference last week that vaccinating through the school system is in OPH’s “wheelhouse of expertise.”
“Immunizing teenagers through school-based programs is the primary way that public health delivers vaccination in a non-pandemic year. So we’re very well prepared for it,” he said, adding the OPH is also working with the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario on a vaccine rollout for youth.
Fisher said Thursday that setting up mobile vaccination sites at schools can also be efficient for inoculating teachers and other education staff who might have been missed in earlier campaigns.
“Ottawa Public Health has shown itself to be very creative and innovative in getting to communities that need to be vaccinated,” he said. “There are a lot of different ways to use our school sites as vaccination centres with a focus on students and staff.”
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OPH said in its latest vaccine update on Wednesday that 47 per cent of eligible Ottawa residents have now received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, including 1,317 teens in the 12-17 age range.
Fisher said he’s happy to see the progress of the local vaccination campaign, noting that the higher the vaccination rates across all demographics in Ottawa, the better shape the city will be in for a safe return to school in the fall.
While he said the rapid testing programs set up at some local schools has been effective at catching asymptomatic cases in the community, he’d like to see Ontario’s supply of rapid tests used in the home starting this summer.
Making rapid testing ubiquitous at home can help screen out cases of the virus before students enter the school setting, adding another layer of protection in keeping schools open as the mass vaccination campaign continues.
“I think this is just good, prudent, mitigating steps that we can take now to get ready for the fall,” he said.
“We really need to start getting ahead of the pandemic, and now’s the time to do it.”
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