Members of the Kingston, Frontenac and Lennox and Addington (KFL&A) Public Health Board unanimously approved a motion “fully endorsing” students’ return to in-person learning as soon as possible.
“We fully endorse (students) returning to school, in particular in our region where our incidence of disease is low,” said Dr. Kieran Moore, Medical Officer of Health for KFL&A Public Health, during a virtual Board Meeting on Wednesday, May 26, 2021.
“I would love to see it happen as early as possible,” Moore added.
Moore was reacting to a presentation by Dr. Kirk Leifso, assistant professor of pediatrics at Queen’s University, who was seeking the Board’s endorsement of an op-ed letter he wrote to Kingston Whig-Standard over a week ago.
The letter, written by Leifso and endorsed by a number of infectious disease physicians at Queens University, detailed some conclusions they have reached regarding back to school learning.
“The conclusion is that we believe that returning children to in-person schooling is important,” Leifso said.
He explained that in regions with low prevalence of COVID-19 such as KFL&A, the risk of continuing to have children out of school outweigh the benefit to the containment and mitigation of COVID-19 in our communities.
Other highlights of the letter reiterate that mitigation efforts are necessary. “Coronavirus is a serious illness, it puts extreme pressure on our health care system,” said Leifso.
He said that COVID does not cause as severe an illness in children as in adults, admitting that “we had only one paediatric patient admitted to hospital (in Kingston) over the course of the pandemic.”
Leifso said that children being in school has not affected COVID-19 infection rates at all.
“We had minimal increase in community transmission,” said Leifso, detailing how after the Christmas break, students were in school for two weeks and it was over seven weeks later when the first local hospitalization happened.
“Using hospitalization rates as a metric in Kingston, children being in school has not affected our regional rates at all,” Leifso said.
KFLA Board of Health chair Denis Doyle said that he is “strongly in favour of this. The biggest question I get from the public is ‘when can the kids go back to school?’”
Vice-chair Wess Garrod said that he would like the kids to go back to school as well and that he fully supports the initiative.
Kingston City Councillor Mary Rita Holland asked about plans regarding school vaccinations.
“(I’m) thinking of families of young people who seem to be in need to see some proof that life will return to normal for them,” Holland said.
Moore answered that “we’ll be presenting an immunization strategy in the school setting and (will) partner with school boards regarding a very proactive approach to immunizations starting June 14, 2021.”
He added that he’s anticipating additional vaccine supplies to ensure that all students ages 12-17 would have vaccines available to them through that strategy in partnership with the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Education.
“We have had a great partnership with the local school boards to prevent transmission within the school setting, and now with vaccinations being available to teachers, they are protected within that environment,” Moore said.
“With ongoing best practices and infection control, screening and testing, it’s worked so well for us in the past. We have had very, very few transmission in those settings,” he added.
Despite not having students vaccinated, Moore said that Kingston remains one of the safest regions in Ontario with a rate of infection of at least one tenth of Toronto’s.
“Knowing that the social, physical, mental well-being of our children have been affected by staying at home, we fully support and embrace students returning to school, particularly in our region,” Moore said.
Councillor Jim Neill, while fully supporting the back-to-school initiative, raised the issue that Kingston cannot go “rogue” on the province with this endorsement.
“I’m not sure we can do it on our own, without the province endorsing it,” Doyle agreed.
Moore answered that for “further clarity, I believe cabinet is meeting tonight to review this issue. I think the Chief Medical Officer of Health speaking publicly to this was to ensure that the cabinet is well aware of Public Health opinion on (in-person learning).”
“The main influence for the meeting this evening is to ensure our voice is heard,” Moore added.
As for the local school boards and teachers unions’ stance on the issue, Moore replied that “we’re not privy to discussions with the unions. We would hope that they would embrace this opportunity, but we’re not privy to their conversations.”