At a time when COVID-19 cases are rising in Hamilton and across the province, the latest case numbers reveal that Hamilton’s school system is faring better than those in other Ontario municipalities.
As of Wednesday, a total of 119 cases had been reported across 64 schools in Hamilton since September — the equivalent of one-third of Hamilton schools.
The number of active cases, however, has depleted at a higher rate than most other Ontario municipalities, making Hamilton schools more COVID-free than cities in the GTA and the National Capital Region.
As of Thursday morning, nine Hamilton schools had reported a cumulative 27 cases of COVID-19, according to data from the Canada-Wide School Tracker, a volunteer-run initiative led by epidemiologists that tracks every school case and outbreak across the country.
That’s the equivalent of one in nine Hamilton schools, or 11 per cent, reporting at least one active case, said Ahmed Al-Jaishi, an epidemiologist and PhD candidate at McMaster University.
“Overall, the number of active cases in Hamilton is lower than the provincial number. Hamilton in general hasn’t been as hard hit compared to other areas, like Brampton and Toronto, and so we’re seeing fewer cases spill over into the school system,” Al-Jaishi said.
As of Thursday, one in six schools across Ontario were reporting COVID-19 cases.
Ontario’s major cities are, on average, reporting higher case counts as well. One in three schools in Toronto, Mississauga and Vaughan has at least one active case. In Ottawa, one in six schools has at least one active case.
Half the schools in Brampton have at least one active case.
The reasons for higher or lower rates of COVID-19 in schools depending on the region can range and are difficult to pinpoint. Community transmission, socioeconomic status, types of employment, population density and enforced safety measures can all play a role.
“All those things matter, so it’s not clear what exactly is causing one area to be worse than the others,” said Al-Jaishi.
Hamilton’s school boards have implemented a range of measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19 in classrooms. In September, they put additional funding toward reducing class sizes in elementary schools and made mask-wearing mandatory for students from kindergarten to Grade 8, with some exceptions.
Hamilton’s public board has also seen a steep decline in in-person enrolment. Earlier in November, the board reported it was missing 1,756 students who had enrolled for in-person classes but never showed up, suggesting that a higher number of students are being home-schooled or parents are delaying sending their children to kindergarten by a year.
Hamilton boards have reported comparatively lower rates of school outbreaks, as well.
Since September, outbreaks — which consist of two or more people transmitting COVID-19 in one building — have appeared in three schools: Shannen Koostachin Elementary School, Sacred Heart of Jesus Catholic Elementary School and St. Marguerite d’Youville Catholic Elementary School.
The outbreaks affected two people in each school, totalling four staff members and two students with positive cases.
In comparison, school outbreaks have run rampant in cities like Toronto, Brampton and Windsor.
In November alone, 14 outbreaks were reported in schools across Peel Region. A school in Windsor was shut down last week after 26 students tested positive for the virus.
Schools have also closed in Toronto, York Region and Ottawa.
Even classroom closures, rather than school closures, will affect lots of students, said Al-Jaishi.
“Take the Peel Region, for example, which closed over 300 classrooms. While the number of COVID-19 cases isn’t that large, the classrooms have roughly 20 students per class, meaning you now have 6,000 students moving to virtual learning for two weeks. Even though the outbreak may be small, the number of classrooms will have a huge effect on the community.”
It is unclear how many classrooms have closed in Hamilton to date.
Jacob Lorinc, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator