Omicron is everywhere, and school is back. Government tracking systems can not keep up. Some families could not bear to send their children to classrooms if they could no longer see the virus hiding there. So they teamed up, formed back channel groups, formed data into spreadsheets in a network, turned data into spreadsheets – turning themselves into contact-detecting guerrilla units that pick up on public health issues.

Across Ontario, countless Whatsapp and Facebook groups have sprung up in recent days, collections of parents locating on their own contact, as Ontario has given up on reporting COVID-19 outbreaks in schools to families this month – rather choose local public health units to notify families only when school absenteeism reaches 30 per cent, and not necessarily due to COVID.

Efforts by these parent groups range from simple messages informing each other about their children’s symptoms, to spreadsheets with quick test results, to complete data visualization.

“When the news came out that the kids were going back, and there would be no contact detection and reporting in schools, I reached as many parents in both of my kids’ classes as I had contact information for,” Laura said. McIninch, who now runs a “temporary” contact tracking WhatsApp group.

“I feel that as parents we want to take any steps we can take to make school safer for children.”

While McIninch is not worried about her double-vaccinated children becoming seriously ill, she is worried about the vulnerable people around them, such as their baby cousin and grandparents. That’s why a school community network that keeps each other informed of any symptoms or close contacts is so essential to her.

Even without her WhatsApp group, McIninch is already better informed about infection risk than some parents, as her children are enrolled in Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB) schools.

Although it is no longer required by the province to make public matters in the school system in public, the council has decided to do so in any case through its COVID control screen. Any positive tests, PCR or rapid, that are reported to principals will appear there.

“This raises a question: why does the board consider it important if the province does not?” said McIninch.

Amelia Libertucci received a letter from her son’s York District School Board Nursery School on Thursday that someone in his class tested positive. But the fact that this matter will not be reported to public health, and parents on their own have to track contact, has her in knots.

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“I’m incredibly frustrated, nervous, scared – I have so much anxiety about it,” she said. “We rely on parents to be the contact trackers. We do the work of public health. That’s ridiculous. “

Libertucci submitted the case information in a Google form she found, created by a group of concerned people who somehow want to continue with contact tracing because no one else will.

“I feel completely left in the dark,” she said. “I am grateful that the school let us know, but that is as far as it goes. Public health does not handle this. It’s really nerve-wracking to be in this position. We all have families, we do not want to infect anyone. ”

“If we’re going to have schools open, they need to be safe,” Libertucci said. “And contact detection is part of making schools safe.”

While some parents see their grassroots contact tracking as better than nothing, it is not without its pitfalls. The larger groups only allow for self-reporting, but it may be that smaller circles rely more on hearsay – which, in context, can cause privacy concerns, or give power to rumors. And lay contact detection can make more mistakes and have less reliable information that families expect from public health units.

Ottawa has become the hub of parent-led contact tracking in the province thanks to the efforts of Christie Cowan, a nurse and mother of three, who started the Facebook group Ottawa Schools & Daycare Contact Tracking – now more than 7,500 members strong.

Cowan said she started the group last week because she “was not comfortable not knowing if there was an issue in my kids’ classes.” On Friday night, the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, one of the city’s four public councils, announced that it would create a voluntary COVID parent registration form and a COVID dashboard, such as the TCDSB.

Knowing that her children have a brush with COVID immediately causes lifestyle changes for her – she needs to limit her contacts, especially her friends who have an immunocompromised child, and ask her parents to help with childcare as she works outside the home .

“If we are notified of lice, it is reasonable to be notified of COVID as well,” Cowan said. “I feel like the government does not see the big picture – they say, ‘Well, COVID does not affect children as much as it does the elderly, immunocompromised or unvaccinated people.’ But what if the children live with people in those high-risk categories? ”

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Inspired by Cowan’s group, Katya Duhamel has the Ottawa School and Day Care Tracker – same concept as the Facebook group, but with data visualization.

“A lot of parents were wondering what we were going to do when the reporting stopped,” she said. “I work in data, so I wanted a simple tool where anyone in Ottawa can share anonymously if they have a COVID case.

“It’s very difficult to make a risk assessment for your family and health if you do not know what’s going on.”

Duhamel set up her tracker within a few days and adds corrections and improvements whenever she can. If she can set it up on her own, she reasoned, the government should have the resources and tools to track contact as well.

“It is difficult for me to look at it in any other way than (the province) because we do not want us to know if we have all the information, because those figures will force certain changes in schools,” she said.

Another spin-off of Cowan’s group appears in Leeds and Grenville area of ​​Ontario – the LGL Schools & Day Care Contact Detection & Awareness Facebook group.

Hendrik Pape, one of four founders, said it now receives about 100 new requests to join every day.

“The concept is to do what the government has decided it does not want to do for us anymore,” he said. “Parents had to step in and say, ‘If you do not do this, we will do it.’ ”

Ben Cohen is a Toronto-based staff reporter for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @bcohenn

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