Students from another school board a bus outside Thorncliffe Park Public School in Toronto on Friday December 4, 2020. Toronto Public Health closed the school due to a COVID19 outbreak. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

Students from another school board a bus outside Thorncliffe Park Public School in Toronto on Friday December 4, 2020. Toronto Public Health closed the school due to a COVID19 outbreak. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

Experts call for community sacrifices to ensure COVID-19 safety in schools

Kids in British Columbia returned to public school after a two-week winter break last week

Schools shuttered by fears of a post-holiday pandemic surge reopen in many parts of the country Monday, but experts say keeping kids safe will depend on stepped-up control measures beyond the learning environment.

Thousands of students in Alberta, Quebec, Nova Scotia and Saskatchewan are among those set to reunite after an extended break, depending on their region and age group.

In some regions, the return to class coincides with tighter precautions both in and out of the classroom.

Grade 1 and 2 students in Quebec will join older elementary students in having to wear masks on school buses and in common areas, while those in Grades 5 and 6 will have to wear masks in class, too.

The biggest news in Quebec has been the introduction of Canada’s first COVID-19 curfew, which prevents most residents from leaving home between 8 p.m. and 5 a.m.

It’s a significant clampdown that should help shield schools from rising community rates that have pushed cases, hospitalizations and deaths to worrisome highs, observers say.

“We have to start talking about other sacrifices that we as communities are willing to make if we want our children to return to school,” says Ashleigh Tuite, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health.

“I don’t love the idea of curfews or restricting movement but again, those are the sorts of measures that I think as adults we should be willing to take on if that means that will help reduce community transmission.”

Ontario was set to reopen elementary schools in the southern half of the province on Monday, but delayed that plan by two weeks due to staggering case counts and a worrisome rise in positivity rates among children.

Ontario’s chief medical officer of health said last week the positivity rate among tested children approached 20 per cent in early January for 12-13 year-olds, up sharply from 5 per cent in late November and early December.

A survey of provincial COVID-19 test results broken down by age also revealed lesser but still significant spikes for other age groups, including a jump to 16 per cent from 5 per cent for 4 to 11-year-olds, and a rise to 14 per cent from 6 per cent for 14 to 17-year-olds.

That’s in tandem with soaring infections that set a daily record of more than 4,200 reported cases Friday, although that included a backlog of about 450 cases.

Ontario has suggested further restrictions are on the way, and expressed a vague desire to introduce more school-based measures aimed at suppressing transmission rates, but no details have been released.

Coming up with the right balance of community-based and school-based restrictions is an imprecise science, says University of Manitoba virologist Jason Kindrachuk, but he says any steps to rein in broader infections help prevent the chance of outbreaks in class.

“We probably shouldn’t be talking about school closures if we’re not also talking about closures of all non-essential businesses and as well, offices,” Kindrachuk says from Saskatoon, where he’s working with the University of Saskatchewan’s Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization-International Vaccine Centre.

READ MORE: BCTF blasts ‘one size fits all’ school COVID plan, calls for transparency from Henry, Dix

But also key is better data to assess just how susceptible school children really are, he said, repeating calls for asymptomatic testing: “We don’t fully understand still to this day what transmission looks like in schools.”

Provincial lockdown measures have been extended in Alberta and Manitoba, while Saskatchewan has said it plans to review the status of its Christmas limits on gatherings and retail capacity.

Kids in British Columbia returned to public school after a two-week winter break last week, but there’s pressure there, too, to ramp up protections including mask mandates and physical distancing.

Teachers in the Fraser Health region are especially concerned about “schools where health and safety standards are inadequate, inconsistent, or unsafe,” the B.C. Teachers’ Federation said Friday in a release.

The federation is calling on provincial authorities to reduce density in schools, improve ventilation, make masks mandatory in all indoor spaces and ensure educators and school staff “are appropriately prioritized” for COVID-19 vaccinations.

Kindrachuk says the arrival of a more infectious COVID-19 variant from the U.K. further raises the stakes for infection control.

“Things don’t go from one day being kind of fine to all of a sudden being bad the next day,” he said. “There’s a slow escalation and then everything starts to hit that exponential phase where you’re not going up linearly, now you’re actually going up very, very precipitously.”

Cassandra Szklarski, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

CoronavirusEducationSchools

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Brett Alexander Jones is wanted on several warrants province-wide, in connection with multiple charges. Jan. 21, 2021. Kitimat RCMP photo
Kitimat RCMP searching for man wanted on several warrants province-wide

Jones is described as a five-foot 10-inches Caucasian man, with blond hair and blue eyes.

Lake Babine Nation closure sign
Lake Babine Nation issues COVID numbers update

Urges members to follow provincial health orders

NH representative confirmed that people who received their first dose will be scheduled to receive their second dose within the recommended timeframe.(The Canadian Press/Nathan Denette photo)
Vaccine rollout abruptly halted in Lakes District

Northern Health cites Pfizer shipment delays for the vaccine distribution disruption

Administering naloxone to a person experiencing a benzo-related overdose event won’t help. Naloxone is used to neutralize opioids. (Jenna Hauck/The Progress file photo)
Northern Health warning drug users of potential benzo contamination

The drug does not respond to naloxone, and is being included in street drugs

Businesses continue to struggle under COVID-19 restrictions as the pandemic reaches the one-year mark. (B.C. government)
Another 564 COVID-19 cases, mass vaccine plan coming Friday

15 more deaths, community cluster declared in Williams Lake

Premier John Horgan leaves the podium following his first press conference of the year as he comments on various questions from the media in the Press Gallery at B.C. Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Monday, January 13, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
Interprovincial travel restrictions a no-go, Horgan says after reviewing legal options

The B.C. NDP government sought legal advice as concerns of travel continue

Gem Lake Top, at Big White Ski Resort, seen at Jan. 8. (Big White Ski Resort)
Big White cancels $7.3M in lift tickets, accommodations due to COVID-19 orders

Since November, the ski resort has been forced to make several changes

Jan. 21 marks the 21st day of the 21st year of the 21st century, according to some. (Black Press Media file photo)
The 21st day of the 21st year of the 21st century is upon us

Milestone won’t be back for another 100 years

Darlene Curylo scratched a $3M ticket, BCLC’s largest ever scratch and win prize. (BCLC)
Kelowna woman in shock after winning BCLC’s largest-ever instant-ticket prize

Darlene Curylo couldn’t believe her eyes when she saw the amount of money she’d won from a scratch ticket

While each person has different reasons for becoming homeless, a UBCO study shows they learn through their interactions with different services to perform ‘as homeless’ based on the expectations of service providers. (Contributed)
Kelowna homeless forced to ‘perform’ for resources, says UBCO study

One participant in the study said ‘It is about looking homeless, but not too homeless’

Gov. Gen. Julie Payette takes the royal salute from the Guard of Honour as she makes her way deliver the the throne speech, Wednesday, September 23, 2020 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand
Gov. Gen. Julie Payette resigns, apologizes for ‘tensions’ at Rideau Hall

Payette, who is the Queen’s representative in Canada, has been the governor general since 2017

Grounded WestJet Boeing 737 Max aircraft are shown at the airline’s facilities in Calgary, Alta., Tuesday, May 7, 2019. WestJet will operate the first commercial Boeing 737 Max flight in Canada today since the aircraft was grounded in 2019 following two deadly crashes. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
Passengers unfazed as WestJet returns Boeing 737 Max to service on Vancouver flight

After a lengthy review process, Transport Canada cleared the plane to return to Canadian airspace

The top part of the fossil burrow, seen from the side, with feathery lines from the disturbance of the soil – thought to be caused by the worm pulling prey into the burrow. (Paleoenvironntal Sediment Laboratory/National Taiwan University)
PHOTOS: SFU researchers find evidence of ‘giant’ predatory worms on ocean floor

Fossils found the prove the existence of an ancient Taiwanese worm as long as two metres

Most Read