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

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said the Canadian government should consider sanctions on the U.S. if they refuse to reconsider the decision to cancel the Keystone XL Pipeline. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Keystone XL officially cancelled, Kenney vows to fight on

U.S. President Joe Biden cancelled the presidential permit for the pipeline on first day of office

Alberta’s chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said province’s test positivity rate for COVID-19 is steadily declining. (Photo by Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)
669 new COVID-19 cases in Alberta, 21 additional deaths

COVID-19 test positivity rate down to 4.5 per cent

The Calnash Ag Event Centre will be closed for competitions until at least Jan. 21, 2020. (Emily Jaycox/Ponoka News)
Outlook for Calnash in 2021 a waiting game

Ag event centre losing thousands during shutdown

Alberta Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Deena Hinshaw reported an additional 456 COVID-19 cases over the past 24 hours. (photography by Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)
Five new COVID-19 deaths in Central zone, two in Red Deer

Province reports 456 new cases of COVID-19

The team that disconnected, lifted and loaded the old Bobtail Road bridge. (Photo submitted)
Bobtail Road bridge moves to new home in Meridian Beach

The 100-year-old bridge was moved Jan. 14

Kyla Gibson with her boyfriend Gavin Hardy. (Photo used with permission)
Sylvan Lake couple lose ‘fur babies’ to house fire

‘They were our world and nothing will ever replace them,’ Kyla Gibson said of her three pets

(Thesendboys/Instagram)
Video of man doing backflip off Vancouver bridge draws police condemnation

Group says in Instagram story that they ‘don’t do it for the clout’

Toronto’s Mass Vaccination Clinic is shown on Sunday January 17, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
Canadian malls, conference centres, hotels offer up space for COVID vaccination centres

Commercial real estate association REALPAC said that a similar initiative was seeing success in the U.K.

Kamala Harris and Joe Biden are sworn into office on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021, at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. (Saul Loeb/Pool Photo via AP)
Joe Biden has been sworn in as the 46th president of the United States

About 25,000 National Guard members have been dispatched to Washington

A memorial for the fatal bus crash involving the Humboldt Broncos hockey team at the intersection of Highways 35 and 335 near Tisdale, Tuesday, October 27, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Liam Richards
‘End of the road:’ Truck driver in Humboldt Broncos crash awaits deportation decision

Sidhu was sentenced almost two years ago to eight years after pleading guilty to dangerous driving

In this March 28, 2017, file photo, a dump truck hauls coal at Contura Energy’s Eagle Butte Mine near Gillette, Wyo. Public opposition to the Alberta government’s plans to expand coal mining in the Rocky Mountains appears to be growing. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Mead Gruver, File
Alberta cancels coal leases, pauses future sales, as opposition increases

New Democrat environment critic Marlin Schmidt welcomed the suspension

COVID update Jan. 19
Ponoka County COVID-19 numbers on steady decline

Numbers of active cases of COVID-19 have continued to drop in Ponoka… Continue reading

File photo
Wetaskiwin Crime Reduction Unit recovers valuable stolen property

Property valued at over $50,000 recovered by Wetaskiwin Crime Reduction Unit.

Most Read