Thursday, 26 Nov 2020

Schools still open amid Canadian coronavirus resurgence. But for how long?

With coronavirus cases continuing to rise across Canada — and showing no sign of slowing down — Quebec is now contemplating either shutting down in-person classrooms or extending the winter school break.

Quebec Premier François Legault said on Thursday that the province is looking at the possibility of closing schools in order to slow the spread of COVID-19, but stressed that it is still the last thing the government wants to do.

He said more than 300 classrooms already closed in the last two days, for a total of 1,174 across the province.

“Schools are a place of transmission. It is why we’re evaluating the possibility of closing the schools for a limited period of time,” he said. “And as I’ve said before, that is our last solution.”

According to data from the province, as of Nov. 11, there are 2,334 confirmed students who have active cases of the virus, and 700 staff members. Since Quebec opened its schools at the end of August, there have been more than 10,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus among staff and students.

In Ontario, one school board is getting “prepared” for a possible shut down of in-person learning.

This week, Hamilton’s public school board asked parents to weigh in on the possibility of closures amid rising COVID-19 cases in the province.

The Hamilton Wentworth District School Board (HWDSB) sent a survey to the guardians of some 26,000 students to assess their “remote learning preparedness,” in the hopes of not only preparing for the prospect of closures but also of ascertaining the potential needs for children to work comfortably from home.

A spokesperson for the HWDSB told Global News the move is in response to an initiative from Ontario’s ministry of education to prepare for possible closures during the second wave of the pandemic, and not necessarily due to rising COVID-19 cases in Hamilton.

“The ministry asked all school boards to create a plan should the need arise to move quickly to remote learning in the event of a classroom, school, or board closure,” said HWDSB spokesperson Shawn McKillop.

South of the border in the U.S., where the virus is blamed for more than 242,000 deaths and at least 10.5 million confirmed infections, some schools have already temporarily shut down.

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School systems in Detroit, Indianapolis, Philadelphia and suburban Minneapolis are stopping in-person classes, with officials saying “it was no longer safe for students and employees to work in an in-person school environment.”

Should schools close in Canada?

As coronavirus cases continue to soar, experts are divided on whether or now closing schools will impact the spread.

“We know that COVID spreads in the following conditions: a bunch of people together, shared airspace, limited ventilation, no masks,” Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist at the University of Toronto, said.

Putting a temporary stop to in-person learning could reduce the amount of contact between people, but it probably won’t stop the spread of the virus, he argued.

This is because schools have a “controlled structure,” Furness said.

“Schools are not sources of the spread, they’re reflecting what’s going on in the community. Is there an occasional transmission in the schools? Yes,” Furness said. “But schools are very structured and they are safe. If they weren’t, then we’d be seeing crazy outbreaks in schools.”

Taking children out of school means kids will most likely still hang out with their peers, he said. And because of this, the kids still have a risk of contraction depending on how many children they still hang out with.

“And if you have working parents, kids can be left to be free-range. I think closing schools may cause an increase in risk,” Furness said. “Or parents have to stop working, and then there’s mental health and economic damage.”

He argued that back in September when schools opened across Canada, that should have been met with restaurants and bars closing.

“In other words, if you’re creating risks then you need to try and mitigate them at the same time,” Furness said.

Anna Banerji, an infectious disease specialist with the University of Toronto, said she believes schools could be a source of transmission.

“I understand the importance of trying to keep kids in schools — but to say that there isn’t transmission going on in schools… I think is not fair to say,” she said.

Banerji argued that the problem with schools is that provinces like British Columbia and Ontario allow kids to go to school with minor symptoms, like a sore throat and runny nose. But a lot of children who have these symptoms may have COVID-19, she said, meaning you bring it into the classroom and other households can get infected.

“There’s (also) a high rate of false negatives in children,” she added.

“We really don’t have a good grasp on how much transmission there is going on in schools.”

“I’m not saying we should, at this point, take them out of school, but no one’s having this discussion of the role of schools. We’re talking about restaurants. We’re talking about gyms and things where there may be transmission going on. But I’m sure part of it are schools.”

Will it happen?

In August, Ontario Premier Doug Ford said he “won’t hesitate” to shut schools down if there was a second wave of the pandemic in the province.

However, Ontario’s Ministry of Education told Global News in an email on Friday: “Our focus remains on doing everything we can to keep students and educators safe, while keeping schools open and students learning in person. We will continue to follow public health advice to ensure safe school environments.”

On Thursday, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney was asked if the province was considering closing down schools.

He said the province does not feel “it’s justified,” as there is limited evidence of in-school transmission, and coronavirus cases in schools generally tend to reflect wider community transmission.

Furness said he does not believe a school shut down is in the near future, however, he said he could see it happening under a “circuit-breaker scenario.”

This is when a region imposes a set of short, tight restrictions with a deadline, making it more digestible to the public while also helping slow the transmission of the virus, and done quickly.

“If we decide to do a so-called ‘circuit-breaker’ type of lockdown … if we decide we need everyone to stay home for three weeks, then it would make sense to close schools,” he said.

“A short term lockdown depends on absolute full compliance. You really need people locked up in their homes, not because schools are dangerous, but to have a simple message, that ‘you are all staying in your house.’”

— With files from Global News’ Rachael D’Amore, Don Mitchell and the Associated Press

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