October 12 Update: One Month Later

It’s now been a full month since the school year began. Here’s what we know so far about COVID in Toronto’s public schools:

A third of schools have had at least one COVID case, but that doesn’t mean that schools are unsafe. Toronto has 815 public schools across the four school boards, and 260 (32 percent) of them have had one or more COVID cases since the start of the school year, for a total of 466 cases. Last year, according to Toronto Public Health, the majority of schools affected by COVID involved single cases, implying that most cases were acquired in the community and were not the result of person-to-person spread within the school (see September 8 post). So far this school year, that’s been true as well. Of the 260 schools affected by COVID thus far, 145 (56 percent) involved single cases, while 115 (44 percent) involved multiple cases.

Single cases aren’t necessarily a bad thing when assessing the safety of schools. “The headlines always seem to trumpet how many overall cases there are, but if the vast majority are one-offs that get picked up, to me that’s a good news story,” tweeted Shannon Proudfoot in a Twitter exchange we had a couple of weeks ago. To appreciate what Proudfoot was saying, imagine the scenario where schools are suddenly closed. Would all the single cases just disappear from the city? Unlikely. They are school cases by association rather than by origin—sneaky viruses caught by the school screening procedures and snuffed out before they could do further damage. The best way to minimize these types of cases is through greater vaccine uptake in the surrounding community where they originate.

Outbreaks are the real threat. Whenever there are two or more cases at a school, there’s the potential that person-to-person transmission has occurred on premise, i.e. an outbreak. Strictly speaking, an outbreak is declared by TPH only if their case investigation concludes that there are at least two lab-confirmed cases with an epidemiological link, where at least one case could have reasonably acquired their infection in school. That means that while all outbreaks involve multiple cases, not all multiple cases constitute an outbreak. Of the 115 schools with multiple cases so far this year, 35 were declared outbreaks and they involved a total of 130 COVID-positive students and staff. Is that a big number? It depends on how you look at it. On the one hand, there are 400,000 students and staff in Toronto’s public schools, so that’s a mere 0.03 percent of the public-school population. On the other hand, any outbreak is significant because of the potential for things to quickly spiral out of control, as we saw in several schools in Ottawa last week and in the closure of Silverthorn CI in Etobicoke this week. There are also reverberating effects on students and staff throughout the school in terms of potential disruptions and dismissals.

Schools in high-risk areas are three times more likely to experience an outbreak. Back in August, 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. (We’ve since updated the risk scores, in School Tracker, to account for recent changes in vaccine coverage). We reasoned that schools located in high-risk areas would be more prone to outbreaks compared to their counterparts in lower-risk areas of the city. So far, this has been true. Among the highest risk (level 5) schools, nine percent have experienced an outbreak, compared to just three percent for all other schools in Toronto.

On October 5, the Ontario government announced that it was rolling out rapid antigen screening to schools where the risk of transmission is high. The schools on our high-risk list would make a good starting point for the new program.

The province’s data portal under-reports school cases by 30 to 50 percent. The Ontario government’s website that is supposed to be the authoritative source for COVID data in Ontario schools—churning out daily numbers that are frequently quoted by various media outlets—is completely unreliable. As of October 8, it showed that Toronto had 206 confirmed cases at 125 schools. Our data showed 310 cases at 193 schools.

Perplexed by the huge discrepancy, I contacted the school boards. “Sometimes there is a lag in reporting, so it could appear on the TDSB site before the provincial website,” said Ryan Bird of the TDSB.

“Note that what is published on MonAvenir’s website is accurate,” said Mikale-Andrée Joly of the French Catholic school board. “Please rely on this data [as opposed to the provincial data] when looking at the total number of cases in our schools.”

Since The Local pulls data directly from the school boards’ websites nightly, we are confident in the timeliness and accuracy of our School Tracker.

According to school board protocols, whenever there’s a positive case, parents and the school community are the first to be notified, then the info gets posted on the board’s website before being reported to the province. With that dataflow in mind, it’s reasonable to assume that the provincial under-reporting is just a timing issue—a ten-second television delay that’s inconsequential and only noticeable when viewed side-by-side with the live action. Turns out, it’s more than simply a lag in the feed; it’s like watching a scrambled TV channel in the eighties where the picture is distorted just enough that you’re not quite sure what you’re looking at.

A deeper examination of the provincial website revealed a litany of errors and omissions. For example, on October 4, it showed 14 confirmed cases at École Saint-Jean-de-Lalande in Scarborough. In actuality, there were only two. At another school with two cases, the province reported 12. I brought these errors to the attention of the school board, which in turn notified the Ministry of Education, and the swollen numbers were subsequently revised. Conversely, we have schools like Dante Alighieri Academy, St. Jude Catholic School, and Huron Street JPS—all with active outbreaks—that are completely absent from the provincial website.

I cannot speak to the accuracy of the entire provincial dataset, but looking at just the Toronto portion, I have great reservations about relying on the provincial data to make decisions about the safety of public schools at this time.

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September 15 Update: Going Live

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: Looking Back at Last Year

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.