September 15 Update

And we’re live. School Tracker is now updated daily with the latest COVID data from Toronto’s 800 schools. I will post a commentary about it (like this post) roughly once a week, if there’s something worth writing about.

When The Local announced the School Tracker a week ago, we assumed we’d be using the school-by-school COVID numbers provided by the provincial government, data it had updated daily during the previous school year. The very next day, when school began, I discovered that the government website that supplied the data had gone dark. This meant that anyone interested in getting a full picture of COVID in Ontario’s schools had to visit the individual websites of all 84 school boards, each with their own reporting format and frequency. With cases changing on a daily basis, staying up to date seemed daunting. And to be perfectly honest, at that point, I seriously doubted the viability of our School Tracker, even if we’re only monitoring cases in Toronto’s four school boards. That’s when Vaccine Hunters Canada reached out.

With some coding wizardry from Andrew Young, founder and director of the volunteer-run non-profit that helped millions of Canadians get vaccinated, we now have a tool that automatically pulls data from the school boards’ websites daily. It essentially combs through the disparate sources of information and brings it all together in a common format, in real time—the same formula that made Vaccine Hunters Canada the go-to source during the Hunger Games phase of the pandemic. Here, it allows me to focus on analyzing and visualizing the data, and asking critical questions, instead of being a data gopher.

The data show that as of 6:00 p.m. on September 14, 38 public schools in Toronto had active COVID cases. For comparison, there were active cases at just 10 schools after the first week last year (although it was a staggered start over the first couple of days). Among those with active cases, 13 are secondary schools.

While the sample size might be too small to draw any definitive conclusions at this point, it’s worth pointing out that the great majority are single cases. This means that there’s been minimal transmissions within schools thus far, and that community transmission is the dominant source of infections.

This is reinforced by the fact that the majority of the schools with active cases are located in higher-risk neighbourhoods. Last month, The Local developed risk scores—on a scale of one to five, with five being the highest risk—for each public school in Toronto based on the surrounding community’s vaccine coverage and its historical propensity for COVID infections. Of the 38 schools with active cases, 22 are located in areas where the risk level is four or higher. In contrast, only six schools with active cases are located in areas where the risk level is two or lower.

The early takeaway is that vaccination continues to be our best defense against school infections; classrooms are safe when the community is safe. And while still early in the new school year, a familiar pattern has emerged: Toronto’s socio-spatial disparity. It’s no accident that high-risk schools are located in low-income, racialized neighbourhoods, precisely the ones where kids cannot stay home and parents cannot afford to miss work. They’re places where, with additional resources, public health measures could be enhanced, class sizes could be reduced, and large outbreaks and disruptions could be prevented.

At the time of posting, the provincial government had reactivated the data portal that had been offline since school began last week. However, it reports only 13 Toronto schools with active cases, while the school boards themselves indicate that there are 38 PHU-confirmed cases. It’s a big discrepancy, but one that the province openly acknowledges. “If there is a discrepancy between numbers reported here and those reported publicly by a Public Health Unit, please consider the number reported by the Public Health Unit to be the most up-to-date,” says the disclaimer on the provincial website.

On that basis, we’ll be sticking with our jerry-rigged tool to pull data directly from the school boards to update our School Tracker daily. Huge thanks to Andrew Young for helping us out.

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September 8 Update

With schools starting this week, The Local is launching a new data blog to track COVID-19’s footprint across Toronto’s 800 public schools. The blog will be updated weekly (or as frequently as necessary) with maps, analysis, and commentary as the school year unfolds.

To start, let’s recap what happened last year. As soon as the doors opened on September 14, 2020, four TDSB schools reported positive cases. A few days later, the TCDSB got its first case. Active cases continued to climb throughout the months of September through December. By December 18, the final day of school before the winter holidays, there were active cases at 279 schools, more than a third of all public schools in Toronto.

The most dramatic scenario took place at schools in Thorncliffe Park and the adjacent neighbourhoood of Flemingdon Park. In November, Toronto was deep into the second wave, and the Thorncliffe Park neighbourhood had become the epicentre: the test positivity rate in the area had shot up to 16 percent. The city average, in comparison, was 6 percent. But cases did not spike at Thorncliffe Park Public School as anticipated. An initial batch of 433 tests of asymptomatic students and staff at the school found 19 cases previously missed. More cases were discovered in the subsequent days, and on December 3, officials decided to shut down the entire school. Dozens of cases were also discovered at Fraser Mustard Early Learning Academy, Grenoble Public School, and Marc Garneau Collegiate—all within a 15-minute walk of Thorncliffe Park Public School. One by one, they were all shut down.

The fact that many children had COVID but showed no symptoms suggests that the data under-reports infections in schools. That aside, the province decided to keep students at home after the winter break, during the peak of the second wave, when new cases were well above 3,000 a day in Ontario. By Valentine’s Day, new cases were back down to around 1,000 a day, and kids were back in school. Throughout the month of March, as Ontario entered the third wave, school cases started to climb to new heights. At the peak, on April 6, 356 schools had active cases, close to 44 percent of all public schools in the city. The province decided to close schools to in-person learning after April 9.

By the end of the tumultuous 2020-21 session, 87 percent of the more than 800 schools at all four boards had had an active case at some point during the year.

Despite the many cases found, Toronto Public Health indicates that student-to-student transmission was low. “Last year, the majority of COVID-19 related to schools in our city had single COVID-19 cases,” said Vinita Dubey, Toronto’s associate health officer.

According to Dubey, while the virus was able to enter the schools, once there, the many layers of public health measures implemented by her health department and the school boards were effective at preventing further transmission. “It is important to remember that the cases in schools were a reflection of COVID-19 spread in our community,” said Dubey. “Since COVID-19 was circulating in the community, [school] cases related to community transmission were expected at the time.”

As students and teachers return to the classroom this week, it’s comforting to know that while almost every school had COVID, large outbreaks were uncommon. At the same time, last year’s experience isn’t a perfect barometer for what’s to come. This year, students are going back to school in the face of a more transmissible variant, with fewer restrictions in the community, and without smaller class sizes. And while we have a new layer of protection in vaccines, coverage is uneven, with some areas of Toronto barely 50 percent fully vaccinated.

How the 2021-22 school year unfolds is anybody’s guess. Check back regularly for live updates. You can also subscribe to our newsletter at the bottom of the page.