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

Forty-two residential properties in Oak Bay were assessed the speculation and vacancy tax in 2019 for a total of $693,000. (Travis Paterson/News Staff)
74 Oak Bay property owners paid $693,000 in spec tax

42 properties were assessed with the SVT in 2019

Sipili Molia, regional kettle manager, shows off the Salvation Army’s new contactless donation system for the 2020 Christmas Kettle Campaign. (Black Press Media file photo)
Greater Victoria raises record-breaking $350,000 for Salvation Army

The charity says it’s seen an increase in need since COVID-19 hit

Staff at Artemis Place Secondary were shocked to find that one of the student-built greenhouses on the campus was stolen overnight on Jan. 11. (Artemis Place Society/Facebook)
Saanich school hopes to catch greenhouse thief red-handed

Student-built greenhouses stolen from Artemis Place Secondary on Jan. 11

Jail cell - Reporter file photo
Two of Greater Victoria’s most notorious teenaged killers have parole privileges extended

Derik Lord gets overnight privileges while Kelly Ellard’s are extended

A woman wears a face mask and shield to curb the spread of COVID-19 while walking in North Vancouver, B.C., on Wednesday, January 6, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
536 COVID cases, 7 deaths reported as B.C. find its first case of South African variant

Henry said 69,746 people have received their first dose of the COVID vaccine.

Anyone with information on any of these individuals is asked to call 1-800-222-TIPS (8477) or visit the website victoriacrimestoppers.ca for more information.
Greater Victoria Crime Stoppers wanted list for the week of Jan. 12

Greater Victoria Crime Stoppers is seeking the public’s help in locating the… Continue reading

50 km/hr speed limit sign.
POLL: What do you think the speed limit should be on residential streets without a centre line?

Traffic on side streets around Greater Victoria could soon be travelling at… Continue reading

Luke Marston works on the seawolf mask for Canucks goalie Braden Holtby. (Mike Wavrecan photo)
B.C. Coast Salish artist designs new mask for Canucks goalie

Braden Holtby’s new mask features artwork by Luke Marston inspired by the legend of the seawolf

Screenshot from video.
2 students arrested in assault of transgender girl at Lower Mainland school

Mother says daughter was targeted because of how she identifies

(Black Press Media file photo)
From arts to environment, nominate your West Shore hero

Nominations for the Goldstream Gazette’s Local Hero awards are open to Jan. 15

Alan Davidson was sentenced to almost six years for abusing seven boys in the late 1970s and early 1990s. (Canadian Press file)
Full parole granted to former Mountie, sports coach convicted of sex abuse of boys

Alan Davidson convicted of abusing boys in B.C. and Saskatchewan in late ’70s, early ’90s

The first COVID-19 vaccine arrives in B.C. in temperature-controlled containers, Dec. 13, 2020. (B.C. government)
More vaccine arrives as B.C. struggles with remote COVID-19 cases

Long-term care homes remain focus for public health

Most Read