Teachers stay home as Toronto school struggles to quell coronavirus fears

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Teachers stay home as Toronto school struggles to quell coronavirus fears


Fear and confusion over the coronavirus have caused chaos at a Toronto private high school made up entirely of Chinese international students, with teachers refusing to show up in class and some students being sent to the local hospital.

But administrators at Yorkland High School are stressing they have stepped up precautionary measures, including daily sanitizing by an outside cleaning company, and have requested anyone who’s recently returned from China — or in close contact with someone who has — to stay home.

There’s no evidence of anyone at the school having contracted the virus — and five students sent to Scarborough Health Network Birchmount hospital on Friday have been cleared.

“We are making every effort to ensure that our students, teachers and staff are working and attending school in a safe and healthy environment,” said spokesperson Nikara Abudou, of the school which has close to 100 students. “Yorkland High School has students who do travel back and forth to China, and as a result we are taking every precaution suggested by Public Health Toronto as well as (the) Ministry of Education.”

Rana Zandi, one of five teachers who refused to show up at school this week, told the Star late Friday afternoon that she still has concerns.

“So far, we have not received any proof (from administration) that they have done what they’re telling us,” said Zandi, who teaches arts and design at the school located on Finch Avenue East, near Kennedy Road. “We haven’t seen it.”

Yorkland High School is a Toronto private school whose student body is made up of Chinese international students. Some students who recently visited China, or are close to someone who has, have been asked to stay home as a precaution.

Her comments came on the same day Ontario announced its third case of the novel coronavirus, which originated in the Wuhan area of China. Canada now has four confirmed cases, including one in British Columbia.

While there’s been a rush on to buy masks, and hysteria spreading on social media, Dr. Eileen de Villa, Toronto’s medical officer of health, says the risk to Toronto residents remains low. Officials understand there is a “certain amount of fear and anxiety” around the new virus, but it is “worsened by the spread of disinformation,” she said, adding people have been showing up in emergency rooms with no symptoms, exposure or relevant travel history.

Shortly before Ontario announced its first confirmed case of the coronavirus — when news of the outbreak was already making headlines — Yorkland teachers sounded the alarm because some students were displaying flu-like symptoms. Zandi said teachers requested administrators have the school properly cleaned by an outside company, buy hand sanitizers or masks, and request those who had recently returned from China to stay home for two weeks.

“I had a student, who had just been to China, and she was back, had the fever and was using my laptop,” said Zandi. “And there was (another) student who was coughing and had a fever.”

But Zandi claims nothing was done — although the school disputes that — and on Monday she and four other teachers, out of a total of about 12, refused to show up. Instead, they offered to run online classes and digital workshops and requested the school remain closed for a minimum of 10 days.

She noted that she can’t run the risk of getting sick because she lives with her mother who’s on medication that has weakened her immune system.

On Monday morning, when some of the teachers didn’t show up, school administrators were unable to provide regular classes for students, and held an assembly about safety and hygiene before dismissing them early. Students pay about $23,000 annually in tuition, plus fees. That doesn’t include living costs — students either live with a homestay family or with roommates in apartments.

Disinfecting wipes and hand sanitizer sit on a table in an empty Yorkland High School in Toronto on Friday. Administrators have tried to reassure staff that they have stepped up precautions amid fears over the coronavirus.

On Tuesday, teachers and students were told to stay home — and lessons continued on Google Classroom. Over that day and the next, the school was cleaned, hand sanitizers were placed in all classrooms and administrators notified additional students who had recently returned from China — or were connected with someone who had — to self-quarantine for about two weeks. About 22 students did so.

By Thursday the building reopened, but many teachers continued to deliver their lessons remotely to students in class and at home.

A Grade 12 student at Yorkland said he was surprised the school continued with so many teachers absent.

“It’s not good to study online, but there’s no point to go to school when there are no teachers,” said the student, who asked not to be identified for fear of repercussions. “But I understand why our teachers are concerned. Most of the students are from China and this virus came from China. Some students just came back from China after the holidays. Both parents and students (who didn’t travel to China) are concerned and afraid, too.”

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On Friday, five of the 22 isolated students contacted the school saying they felt unwell and the administration took them to hospital. By nightfall all were cleared.

According to the Grade 12 student, who had stayed in Toronto over the winter break, none of his classmates appeared to have flu-like symptoms, but said the school has asked everyone recently returned from China to see a doctor to be tested for the virus and to self-quarantine.

He said the school administration has yet to explain to students about the teachers’ absence and let parents and students know when classes will return to normal again.

Abudou is confident classes will resume normally on Monday. Zandi still isn’t sure if she’ll be there then.

“I don’t know my answer,” said Zandi. “I want to see what happens between now and Monday.”

With files from Star staff





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