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School staff at the Peel public board, west of Toronto, are now required to wear face shields or goggles, and are encouraged to eat lunch alone as concerns grow around the transmission of COVID-19 variants.

The heightened health and safety measures were issued in a memo late last week by the Peel District School Board, Ontario’s second-largest school board, and have caused anxiety among teachers about the safety of their workplaces.

Peel Region, particularly Brampton, has seen some of the highest rates of COVID-19 infections in the country.

Coronavirus tracker: How many COVID-19 cases are there in Canada and worldwide? The latest maps and charts

COVID-19 news: Updates and essential resources about the pandemic

Canada vaccine tracker: How many COVID-19 doses have been administered so far?

Which COVID-19 ‘variants of concern’ are in Canada? Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta and Lambda explained

COVID-19 is caused by a virus called SARS-CoV-2, and as it spread around the world, it mutated into new forms that are more quickly and easily transmitted through small water droplets in the air. Canadian health officials are most worried about variants that can slip past human immune systems because of a different shape in the spiky protein that latches onto our cells. The bigger fear is that future mutations could be vaccine-resistant, which would make it necessary to tweak existing drugs or develop a new “multivalent” vaccine that works against many types, which could take months or years.

Not all variants are considered equal threats: Only those proven to be more contagious or resistant to physical-distancing measures are considered by the World Health Organization to be “variants of concern.” Five of these been found in Canada so far. The WHO refers to them by a sequence of letters and numbers known as Pango nomenclature, but in May of 2021, it also assigned them Greek letters that experts felt would be easier to remember.

ALPHA (B.1.1.7)

  • Country of origin: Britain
  • Traits: Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines are still mostly effective against it, studies suggest, but for full protection, the booster is essential: With only a first dose, the effectiveness is only about 66 per cent.
  • Spread in Canada: First detected in Ontario’s Durham Region in December. It is now Canada’s most common variant type. Every province has had at least one case; Ontario, Quebec and the western provinces have had thousands.

BETA (B.1.351)

  • Country of origin: South Africa
  • Traits: Some vaccines (including Pfizer’s and Oxford-AstraZeneca’s) appear to be less effective but researchers are still trying to learn more and make sure future versions of their drugs can be modified to fight it.
  • Spread in Canada: First case recorded in Mississauga in February. All but a few provinces have had at least one case, but nowhere near as many as B.1.1.7.

GAMMA (P.1)

  • Country of origin: Brazil
  • Traits: Potentially able to reinfect people who’ve recovered from COVID-19.
  • Spread in Canada: B.C. has had hundreds of cases, the largest known concentration of P.1 outside Brazil. More outbreaks have been detected in Ontario and the Prairies.

DELTA (B.1.617 AND B.1.617.2)

  • Country of origin: India
  • Traits: Spreads more easily. Single-dosed people are less protected against it than those with both vaccine doses.
  • Spread in Canada: All but a few provinces have recorded cases, but B.C.’s total has been the largest so far.

LAMBDA (C.37)

  • Country of origin: Peru
  • Traits: Spreads more easily. Health officials had been monitoring it since last August, but the WHO only designated it a variant of concern in June of 2021.
  • Spread in Canada: A handful of travel-related cases were first detected in early July.

If I’m sick, how do I know whether I have a variant?

Health officials need to genetically sequence test samples to see whether it’s the regular virus or a variant, and not everyone’s sample will get screened. It’s safe to assume that, whatever the official variant tallies are in your province, the real numbers are higher. But for your purposes, it doesn’t matter whether you contract a variant or not: Act as though you’re highly contagious, and that you have been since before your symptoms appeared (remember, COVID-19 can be spread asymptomatically). Self-isolate for two weeks. If you have the COVID Alert app, use it to report your test result so others who may have been exposed to you will know to take precautions.

Need more answers? Email audience@globeandmail.com

Tiffany Gooch, a spokeswoman with the Peel school board, said it was acting with an “abundance of caution” by requiring its staff to wear board-supplied face shields or goggles in addition to their masks. She said that as new measures have been put in place over the past year to prevent the spread of COVID-19, families and staff have “been adaptable and understanding.”

Several boards in the province, including in Thunder Bay and Halton Region, require staff to wear face shields or goggles, as well as their masks. Toronto Public Health said in an e-mail statement on Wednesday that it “strongly recommended” school staff wear eye protection “in situations where physical distancing of at least two metres cannot be adequately and consistently maintained, in both indoor and outdoor settings.”

“The new variants of concern are more transmissible, which means that we have to be more consistent in adhering to public-health measures at all times,” Vinita Dubey, Toronto’s Associate Medical Officer of Health, said in an e-mail statement.

In Peel, the public and Catholic school boards met with ministry of health, ministry of education and local health officials to discuss cases in their schools and consider remote learning. At the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board, students at four schools are learning remotely, and another three schools will move to remote learning on Thursday. At one school, St. Sofia, there are 10 student cases and another five staff cases. The school is closed to in-class instruction.

Lawrence Loh, Medical Officer of Health for Peel, was asked about the meeting at a press conference on Wednesday.

“There have been questions raised around the ongoing picture of transmission in our community. At this time, we continue in discussions with our school boards and ultimately will issue recommendations that will continue to keep our community and our school system safe.”

Dr. Loh said he had recommended the use of eye protection for school staff in the fall. As cases have increased, that advice has been strengthened.

“Peel Public Health has advised school boards to strengthen this recommendation to mandatory eye protection to further enhance consistency of use and protect against variants of concern,” Dr. Loh said in an e-mail statement on Wednesday.

He also said that there have been at least eight individuals who likely contracted COVID-19 from eating and drinking in closed spaces since the return to in-person learning. Peel Public Health has recommended staff eat alone and drink at least two metres apart from students in class.

The Peel school board told staff in a memo on Friday that they must eat alone and preferably outdoors, and they were not to drink water in their classrooms while students are present. The board apologized to staff on Tuesday and told them they could drink water in their classrooms, and that, if there was no alternative, they could use unused classrooms to eat lunch. The board recommended that no more than one person be in the room at a time. Staff rooms are used as isolation spaces.

Gail Bannister-Clarke, president of the Peel local of the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario, said that while she is not opposed to increased safety measures, she worries about teaching students, especially young children, with masks and goggles.

“It’s really challenging to communicate,” she said. “So much of our communication is non-verbal and students are able to see the warmth of your smile. ... It creates more distance between the teacher and the students.”

Ms. Bannister-Clarke said that while teachers have received more personal protective equipment, there are no enhanced measures for children. “If it is not safe for us to be in schools unless we’re wearing face shields or goggles, I wonder about the safety of students who are just wearing masks.”

Kristan Osborne, a middle-school teacher in Brampton, posted a picture on Twitter this week wearing goggles and a mask. Ms. Osborne said it was uncomfortable and gave her a headache after five minutes of use.

She said that other than a memo directing the use of more personal protective equipment, she and her colleagues have not received any information from the board about what has changed from one week to the next.

“We owe it to our students and our community to explain what’s happening. And we don’t know those answers,” Ms. Osborne said. “Why all of a sudden now? Explain to me. Talk to me.”

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