Distancing and number of people inside are key considerations as teachers and students head inside this fall
As schools across Canada finalize their back-to-class plans, doctors say there are a few things educators and parents should keep in mind during COVID-19.
People will form new routines that build on the advice provincial medical officers of health regularly share about handwashing, avoiding touching your face and trying to keep two metres away from others. Schools will now put students into smaller groups, check ventilation and consider use of masks. Cases of COVID-19 haven’t overwhelmed health systems in Canada thanks to collective sacrifices, but cases continue to occur.
CBC News is breaking down need-to-know information on the pandemic based on questions sent via email to [email protected] Here, physicians offer advice and answer questions on back-to-school topics such as distancing, health checks, safe nap times and when to stay home.
Dr. Lisa Barrett, an infectious diseases physician at Dalhousie University in Halifax, said keeping school as safe as possible for kids to learn and socialize doesn’t follow a set timetable. By necessity, she said, school plans can’t be perfect and people won’t follow all of the basics to the letter at all times.
“If we don’t do a better job of tracking and tracing, then some of these school plans … are going to fail, and we’re going to see outbreaks and clusters we can’t control,” she said. Layering public health measures for all Canadians on top of testing and contact tracing aims to keep outbreaks manageable.
Priority 1: Keep COVID-19 out
Many school boards have not yet offered details on what they’ll be implementing to keep children safe and how. Until then, infectious disease and public health experts say some precautions will be the most effective.
Infectious disease physicians stress prevention before control — meaning they’d like to keep the novel coronavirus out of schools altogether.
That’s why they, along with pediatricians and epidemiologists, repeat that people need to stay home when sick. Doing so prevents an individual’s illness from sparking more.
Dr. Laura Sauvé, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at the University of British Columbia, said public health, school authorities and infectious disease specialists are collaborating closely across the country.
“Public health authorities are trying their best to balance multiple competing priorities keeping in mind the whole child,” Sauvé said.
Priority 2: Check frequently for symptoms
Recognizing a sickness and acting on it is a major layer of defence to keep COVID-19 out of schools. Sauvé’s son is heading into Grade 4. When he attended day camp in B.C. this summer, she said, there were either sign-in sheets or a daily email requiring parents to declare the child is not sick.
Priority 3: Stay apart
Public health experts have repeatedly stressed that physical distancing is key to preventing the spread of COVID-19, but how that will play out in schools with small classrooms and large numbers remains to be seen.
Andisha A., a Grade 11 student in Calgary, sent the this question to Ask CBC: “How can I be safe when my classroom is full, with not a lot of social distancing going around? The school board is also not forcing students to wear a mask?”
“Ottawa Public Health supports having the number of students within a classroom to be as small as possible, in order to facilitate appropriate physical distancing, and to maintain distancing and limit the mixing of cohorts in common areas such as hallways and washrooms,” Dr. Brent Moloughney, the city’s associate medical officer of health said in a statement on Tuesday. Provincial recommendations to school boards are also subject to change.
Masks are another issue school boards are tackling differently. In Alberta, students from Grades 4 through 12 will be required to wear masks in all public spaces like hallways and can choose to wear them while seated in the class.
Masks will be optional for younger students. Quebec’s plans are similar. Ontario requires masks in Grades 4 to 12.
Priority 4: Ventilation
Lorna C. asked, “What is the plan to ensure safe air flow and humane working temperatures in elementary schools without air conditioning?”
At her clinic, Sauvé said fans are generally avoided to prevent the spread of fungal spores but they are turned on since it can get as hot as 35 C inside. For schools, Sauvé said opening windows is encouraged. Provincial occupational health and safety committees have more specific recommendations on ventilation in school.
Priority 5: Personal protective equipment
Dr. Catherine Clase, a nephrologist at St. Joseph’s Healthcare in Hamilton, applauds Andisha for being proactive about staying safe at school
Sauvé said sleeping children are also not coughing and running around. “Evidence suggests that toddlers would transmit less than a 20-year-old having a nap.”
Schools aren’t the most dangerous place
Doctors and scientists also know more about the virus than when schools abruptly closed back in March, when the pandemic was taking hold in Canada.
The bulk of evidence globally shows some kids will get very sick with COVID-19, but overall they get much milder disease symptoms than adults, Sauvé said.
“Of kids who get it, about 80 per cent get it from somebody in their household … even in settings where kids are getting back to school and back to daycare,” she said. It also appears that young children transmit the virus less than older kids. There’s no clear age cutoff, according to Sauvé.