Ontario has filled almost all 625 public health nurses in schools, but is it enough?
As students across the province return to face-to-face classes, the Ontario Ministry of Education says 624 of 625 public health nurse positions in schools have been filled – but they must each cover multiple schools and some critics question whether that is enough to keep children safe during the pandemic.
Last August, the province announced it was hiring 500 public health nurses, and announced that 125 more would be added in September.
“These nurses play a central role in supporting communications between [public health units] and local school communities, and will continue to play a role in our ongoing partnership to support healthy and safe school environments, ”said Caitlin Clark, spokesperson for Education Minister Stephen Lecce.
The Department of Education says it has provided $ 62.5 million to public health nurses to fill the 625 nursing positions.
As nurses are responsible for several schools, they will not be physically present every day. Instead, they will serve as an educational resource for staff, students, and parents on how to implement COVID-19 safety measures. While their addition is welcomed by staff and teachers, some are calling on the province to do more to keep schools safe.
“Every day is very, very different”
The education ministry said nurses have contributed to assessments of the prevention and control of COVID-19 infections at more than 3,000 schools.
Their roles range from case finding and contacting to educating school staff about COVID-19 measures and testing programs.
“A big part of my job is doing proactive visits and reactive visits to [infection prevention and control] support, ”said Austin White, a public health nurse with the Niagara Region Public Health School Health Team.
White said he has been particularly busy since February 8, when classes in the area where he works reverted to in-person learning.
“Every day is very, very different. But I get a lot of calls from my schools asking me basic questions about mask use, physical distance, and screening. And if there are cases in schools, I am pushed to make reactive visits to schools. “
Regina Elliott, who manages the public health nurses in the Durham Region Department of Health, said contact tracing is a big part of what these nurses do.
“The nurse works with the principal to get to the alignment, say, for the classroom. Or if there’s a bus involved, or a seating chart. She assesses who would be close contacts, who would be fired. from school and who should self-isolate, ”Elliott said.
The head of the Registered Nurses Association of Ontario (RNAO) is pushing for these positions to continue beyond the pandemic.
“The initiative has proven to be quite successful – so much so that we are asking for these positions to become permanent,” said Dr Doris Grinspun, CEO of RNAO, who added that the impact of COVID on children will continue. for years. come.
The ministry has not indicated its intention to make the posts permanent.
Keeping schools safe
Although the province says nurses play a key role in planning, preventing and responding to COVID-19, some teachers argue it’s not enough, with in-person learning resuming across the province .
Sam Hammond, president of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, said if he supports the addition of public health nurses, more is needed.
Hammond said that when the province first announced the addition of public health nurses, many teachers believed they would be physically present in schools regularly to help. In fact, there are 4,825 publicly funded schools in Ontario, which means that many public health nurses are responsible for multiple schools.
“Additional support is always welcome,” Hammond said in response to the province filling 624 nursing positions, but said many of its members do not interact with them.
“We would rather, quite frankly, see this money or the amount of funding for that or some of that funding to reduce class sizes, which is an immediate safety measure on the ground.”