Schools reopening may lead to outbreaks, but we can’t afford to keep them closed: experts

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As parts of Canada continue to reopen after coronavirus closures, schools are preparing to welcome kids back to the classroom in the coming months.

Most provinces and territories have released plans for reopening schools chock full of safety measures ⁠— including physically distanced desks, face masks or shields for staff and staggered pickup and drop-off times, among other things. But experts warn that the schooling experience will require some trial and error.

“All these measures we’re putting into place (are) driven by what the science is telling us would be required to try and reduce transmission … but you have to factor in how feasible it is,” said Dr. Susy Hota, an infectious disease specialist at the University Health Network.

READ MORE: U.S. schools can only reopen if bars, gyms, stay closed, experts say

Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of Toronto, agrees ⁠— it will probably be tricky to get children to follow the rules.

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“Kids want to hug, they want to be close,” he previously told Global News.

Furness added: “It’s different from telling kids to stay away from strangers on the street. This is their buddies on the playground, the close play, close contact… Their hands get into everything.”

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Some experts worry the coronavirus prevention measures will negatively affect kids’ development.

Kristina Llewellyn, a social development studies professor at the University of Waterloo, worries they will reverse the work educators have done over the years to foster a healthy and multifaceted learning environment.

“For a long time, we’ve told kids that learning is based on tapping into their social and emotional selves. We’ve spent a lot of time enhancing that, and now all of a sudden we’re saying, ‘Don’t tap into that, don’t be social beings,’” she previously told Global News.

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“I worry, especially for the young grades, whether that could do more long-term harm on learning and the kind of relationships they can develop within a school environment.”

Physical distancing, hand hygiene of utmost importance

The proposed plans to reopen schools vary across provinces and territories.

In British Columbia, desks will be spaced apart, group gatherings in hallways and other common areas will be prohibited, and students will spend increased time outdoors.

The province of Manitoba has put forward three potential plans to bring back school, and the government will announce which one will be used on Aug. 1. The decision will depend on how severe the outbreak is in the province at that time.

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Meanwhile, Quebec ⁠— the epicentre of the pandemic in Canada ⁠— will reopen preschools, elementary schools and high schools up to Grade 9 at maximum capacity come September, and attendance will be compulsory.

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High schoolers in their two final years will have the flexibility to alternate between learning at home and in the classroom. CEGEPs and universities will be permitted to reopen with a hybrid option of online and in-class learning with 1.5-metre physical-distancing rules in place in lecture halls.

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One thing is clear: physical distancing and good hand hygiene will be of the utmost importance as schools reopen.

READ MORE: Can we really keep kids distant in school amid COVID-19? It won’t be easy, experts say

The biggest concern, Hota says, is having a high number of children close together indoors for a prolonged period of time ⁠— a scenario that has all the makings of a COVID-19 outbreak.

“The challenges (teachers will face) trying to physically distance kids throughout the course of the school day… that’s one big challenge, as well as the inability to use masks or face shields constantly,” Hota said.

Schools should also try to implement mask-wearing as much as possible, said Dr. Sumontra Chakrabarti, an infectious diseases physician at Trillium Health Partners in Mississauga, Ont.

He also recommends spacing desks in such a way that students are kept two metres (or six feet) apart and spending more time outdoors when possible.

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“It’s going to be difficult,” Chakrabarti said. “When kids go back to school, there may be, theoretically, higher community transmission.”

Low community transmission

In the U.S., some experts say schools will only be able to safely reopen if bars and gyms remain closed to keep community transmission low.

According to the Canadian government, community transmission occurs when the virus has passed within a community rather than through travel.

Public health experts are urging U.S. federal, state and local officials to reconsider how they are reopening the broader economy and to prioritize K-12 schools — an effort that will likely require closing some other establishments to help curb the virus spread.

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“We need to think about what our priorities are as a society, and some other things may just have to wait,” Helen Jenkins, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Boston University, previously told the Associated Press.

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“I think there are hard choices having to be made by decision-makers.”

However, the situation is very different in Canada. Although low community transmission is a key factor, experts believe the slow but steady approach to reopening the Canadian economy has proven successful ⁠— and should continue.

READ MORE: What will Canadian schools look like after COVID-19? Here’s what could change

“The best way to protect kids (and staff), aside from physical distancing, is having low community transmission,” Chakrabarti said.

“That’s a precursor to everything, whether it’s opening businesses, opening schools or what have you.”

Chakrabarti understands the argument that opening places like bars and indoor restaurants could increase community transmission, thus delaying the reopening of schools, but he says it doesn’t exactly apply to Canada.

“I think the better thing to do is … (welcome) students back in a staged way, mitigating risk wherever they can and doing this at a time where community transmission is low enough that it’s safe to try this and monitor it,” he said.

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Hota agrees and believes we need to prioritize reopening schools.

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“It’s not been good for our children to be at home and to have missed most of the year of education and interaction with other children,” she said.

Low community transmission is important, Hota adds, but that doesn’t necessarily mean delaying the reopening of other parts of the economy. She believes the entire country has to come together to reopen everything as safely as possible.

“I do think we should be prepared to see some outbreaks in schools. It’s going to happen because no measures are perfect,” Hota said. That’s a risk everyone has to accept as Canada moves into this new reality.

READ MORE: Trump threatens to withhold federal funding if schools don’t reopen in the fall

“I think we need to accept that risk and not be thinking this is an all-or-none game,” Hota said. “We just have to (keep) in mind concepts of mitigation … and what we do to reduce the overall risk.”

Moving forward

One thing experts want to stress is that this is a brand-new experience for everyone in Canada ⁠— and the new normal for schools may take some time to pin down.

“We have never tried to do this before as a society,” said Dr. Allison McGeer, a microbiologist and director of infection control at Mount Sinai Hospital.

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“People will be watching carefully, but of course, there will be issues and challenges (with these plans).”

McGeer says it’s OK if these school reopening plans aren’t perfect the first time, as long as everyone is making the best decisions possible.

“We’re not necessarily going to get it right the first time, but we have all agreed that we have two goals: one of them is to have (schools) open so that children can be at school and learn, and the second is to not have COVID-19 transmission,” McGeer said.

“It’s not going to be easy to do both of those at the same time. All we can do is try our very best.”

READ MORE: ‘Face-to-face’ learning could change when Ontario students return to class

Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:

Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.

To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out.

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In situations where you can’t keep a safe distance from others, public health officials recommend the use of a non-medical face mask or covering to prevent spreading the respiratory droplets that can carry the virus. In some provinces and municipalities across the country, masks or face coverings are now mandatory in indoor public spaces.

For full COVID-19 coverage from Global News, click here.

⁠— With files from the Associated Press and Global News’ Rachel D’Amore

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