It was 11 p.m. on a recent Sunday night, and Toronto principal Jeff Crane needed answers for a worried family after a child at his school tested positive for COVID-19.
So he started texting.
Thorncliffe Park Public School is nestled amid rows of high-rise apartment buildings in Toronto. It had already weathered waves of infection during the pandemic, its hallways becoming home to some of the highest case counts among schools in Canada. But the parents’ questions extended beyond any training the veteran educator had been provided.
Janine McCready answered his messages.
“She’s my new best friend,” Mr. Crane said.
Dr. McCready is an infectious-diseases physician at Michael Garron Hospital, a 10-minute drive from the school. In the past six months, as rising COVID-19 caseloads and the spread of more contagious variants made her job at the hospital even busier, she chose to take on more. She has been answering text messages, phone calls and e-mails from educators across the city’s east end, quietly helping 110 schools through the pandemic while spearheading an innovative testing program for thousands of students.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recognized her work in a speech last month. She acknowledges and appreciates the compliments – but then this roll-up-your-sleeves doctor is back on the job.
Dr. McCready, who has one child in public school and another in preschool, understood the anxiousness around classrooms reopening back in the fall. She wanted to offer her expertise to local schools, so she approached hospital administrators and requested a team to support her.
“This is definitely outside the scope of what a hospital usually does, but I think we’re very unique in the east. We’re part of the community,” Dr. McCready said.
Mikki Hymus, principal at Grenoble Public School in the Flemingdon Park neighbourhood, another COVID-19 hotspot, remembers the offer of assistance.
“We are educators, not medical professionals,” she said. “We grabbed hold of this helping hand in September and have not let go since.”
Affable and approachable, Dr. McCready initiated an hour-and-a-half virtual session for Grenoble staff to answer questions and address misinformation. Then, her team walked through the school to suggest improvements on how to set-up classrooms and how students and staff could move through the hallways and doors in a safe way. At one point in the fall, Dr. McCready even petitioned for a pop-up testing clinic near the school so that it would be more accessible for families, especially those who do not have cars, Ms. Hymus said.
“She is the Grenoble angel, as far as I’m concerned.”
Heightened health and safety measures mean only students and school staff can be inside school properties; Dr. McCready is one of the few visitors Mr. Crane allows. She has watched students line up and spoken to them about “zombie arms,” where they stretch their limbs out to keep their distance.
“There’s a sense of comfort talking to her,” Mr. Crane said.
Kevin Kerr, principal at Our Lady of Fatima Catholic School in Scarborough, connected with Dr. McCready over the summer. He needed practical advice on how children could borrow books from the library and use the gym equipment. What started as individual chats have turned into virtual meetings every few weeks with Dr. McCready and her team for east-end educators.
“To have a doctor that was available that you can talk to, can give you some more practical insight as to what would work and what wouldn’t work … it helped calm things down,” Mr. Kerr said.
Just before the winter break, Dr. McCready and her team offered tests to all students at Thorncliffe Park during the school day, an active approach to testing in communities where it’s most needed. After students returned to their classrooms in February, the program expanded to provide home-testing kits to all schools in her hospital’s catchment area. Schools keep the kits on hand and send them home in backpacks when a child has to leave early with a runny nose or is feeling unwell.
Michael Warner, head of critical care at Michael Garron, has known Dr. McCready for the decade she’s been at the hospital. He recalls the time she stood behind a COVID-19 patient in his 40s who had such a low level of oxygen in his blood that he was delirious. The man was bigger than Dr. McCready, but she positioned herself to catch him if he fell as she calmly coaxed him to lie down so he could be intubated.
“She is in the trenches. She is there every day,” Dr. Warner said. “She’s not just telling people what to do. She’s doing it.”
Michael Garron Hospital is in an area that serves wealthier neighbourhoods but is also home to newcomer families and marginalized populations, which have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19. Dr. McCready and her team’s work in supporting and educating the community and its schools is likely one reason why the hospital hasn’t been hit as hard as others, Dr. Warner said.
“I would call her a national leader in what she’s not just planned to do, but actually got done.”
The balance is tricky. Her hospital caseload has not diminished. Yet, she will respond to principals as early as 7 a.m. when they’ve learned of a case at their school. She will tuck her children in bed at night before attending to more questions, such as the ones from Mr. Crane that Sunday. On a recent morning this week, she called five families whose children had tested positive for the virus, explaining next steps while reassuring them.
“Hopefully,” Dr. McCready said, “this is a once-in-a-career pandemic ... It’s exhausting but it’s rewarding to be able to support [schools] at that level.”
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