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Lots to consider before reopening Manitoba schools amid coronavirus pandemic: epidemiologist

Children learning online has benefits, drawbacks during pandemic, says epidemiologist.
Children learning online has benefits, drawbacks during pandemic, says epidemiologist. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Paul Sakuma

A Winnipeg epidemiologist says health officials are going to have to keep a close eye on coronavirus data as they work out how — and when — Manitoban children return to school.

Cynthia Carr of EPI Research told 680 CJOB that kids aren’t the best carriers of the coronavirus, but there are still a number of factors to consider before opening schools again.

“It’s a challenging decision to make for policymakers because we’ve learned that things can happen that we don’t expect,” said Carr.

“There’s certainly a lot to balance against just looking at the data. The data is just five to seven per cent of all cases across the world seem to be among children aged 19 and under, but there’s other challenges.”

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Although kids tend not to be good carriers of the virus, she said, putting them back in a school setting means there could still be outbreaks — for example, if an asymptomatic carrier comes back to a home with high-risk, vulnerable family members, or if kids bring the virus to an overcrowded housing situation.

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On the other hand, there’s the social and educational impact of keeping children out of schools to consider, she said.

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While many students have been able to connect with teachers and classmates through online learning, that’s not a reality for everyone in the province.

“We know that many kids are part of what we’re calling the digital divide,” said Carr.

“Kids in my communities where I typically work — in northern, isolated communities — there’s not even cell service in the community. They rely on Wi-Fi, but the catch is that places that have Wi-Fi might be closed.”

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Carr said keeping vulnerable populations — like seniors — safe from COVID-19 will be critical for the province as it continues to reopen things over the coming months.

“We know from our data that clearly our most vulnerable population — our elderly — are at highest risk. We’re seeing outbreaks in different areas across the country as well.

“So that shows us that even though we can see where the most vulnerable population is, it’s a very sneaky virus with an excellent strategy, being that it has a long incubation period so you don’t know if you’ve been infected right away; there’s opportunity to transfer because many of us don’t become symptomatic at all.”

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