With COVID-19 at record levels, reopening schools is unwise, say health experts | The Star

Epidemiologists are warning that reopening elementary schools on Monday as planned, at a time when COVID-19 transmissions are at record-high levels in Ontario, would be unwise.

“One of the real challenges that this virus presents is that you have transmission that can occur before people are symptomatic, and the additional challenge is that many kids show very few symptoms if any,” said epidemiologist Amy Greer, a Canada research chair in population disease modelling at the University of Guelph.

In a long Twitter thread posted on Sunday, she characterized the decision to let children back into school as “reckless and dangerous.”

Education Minister Stephen Lecce reassured parents on the weekend that elementary school classrooms will reopen on Jan. 11 and high school students will return to classrooms Jan. 25, two days after the current provincial lockdown is scheduled to end.

In the face of soaring COVID-19 cases, Quebec is considering keeping schools closed for at least another week. Schools in the U.K. are closed until Jan.18, and possibly longer in areas hardest hit by the pandemic.

It made sense to let students back into classrooms in September when community transmission rates were low, said Greer. But with the positivity rate approaching 10 per cent, the number of daily cases in Toronto often approaching 1,000 and Ontario surpassing 3,000 new cases a day, the level of community transmission is so high it will mean more children infected with the virus showing up for class and infecting their classmates, who will bring the virus home to their families.

Screening tools don’t work on children who are asymptomatic, Greer pointed out. If they don’t have a fever; if they’re not coughing or sneezing or fatigued, checklists and thermometers won’t catch the illness and won’t prevent infected students from taking a seat beside a classmate.

If other measures are in place to prevent transmission, the impact of the asymptomatic cases can be attenuated — for example if classes are smaller and children are seated far apart, if ventilation has been optimized — students without symptoms are less likely to pass along the virus. But Greer said classrooms have not been sufficiently modified to prevent that kind of transmission.

“I feel frustrated that we don’t appear to have a plan for how we’re going to compensate to keep schools open in the context of high community transmission,” said Greer, in an interview with the Star.

Dr. Andrew Morris, a professor of medicine at the University of Toronto and the medical director of the Sinai Health System-University Health Network Antimicrobial Stewardship Program, said the role schools play in transmission of COVID-19 remains unclear — although they are a contributing factor.

He said the COVID-19 numbers are so bad now it’s hard to imagine keeping anything open beyond what is absolutely essential.

“I think that opening schools up now as we have an up going trajectory and when we really have a fair amount of uncertainty about the role of schools in transmission, is not wise,” Morris said.

Dr. Eileen de Villa, Toronto’s medical officer of health, has said in the past that schools are critically important and provide an important conduit for social services and even food, through school nutrition programs, for children who need support.

She echoed those concerns at the first COVID-19 update from city hall on Monday, adding on Tuesday that the subject is under active consideration and discussion.

“What we are trying to do is balance control of COVID-19 along with ensuring that we’re meeting the health needs of children and their families, and we know that there is a specific benefit, a clear benefit to having children attend school in person … but it is a very delicate balancing act, and one that may seem like a relatively straightforward decision, but actually has much more complexity underneath it,” she told CBC’s “Metro Morning.”

The decision to open or close schools is a provincial one. Students are currently receiving virtual instruction.

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The Ministry of Education did not respond to questions from the Star in time for this story’s deadline.

Lecce told parents in a letter sent out over the weekend that “schools are not a source of rising community transmission.”

Francine Kopun is a Toronto-based reporter covering city hall and municipal politics for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @KopunF

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