Coronavirus cases spiked in reopened U.S. schools. Should Canadians be concerned?

Click to play video: 'Your COVID-19 questions answered ahead of the school year'
Your COVID-19 questions answered ahead of the school year
WATCH: Your COVID-19 questions answered ahead of the school year – Aug 8, 2020

On Aug. 1, a school in Indiana sent a letter home, thanking students and staff for a great first two days of school.

In that letter, the school also noted that “we did see more positive cases from staff members than we anticipated,” so it was moving to e-learning for the next week as a precaution, even though administrators thought that the staff had contracted the coronavirus before the schools opened. Other schools have reported outbreaks too.

What’s happening right now in the U.S. is a “dumpster fire,” said Dr. Lynora Saxinger, an infectious diseases specialist at the University of Alberta. The amount of uncontrolled spread in the community, in her opinion, made opening schools a bad idea.

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As Canadian provinces announce their plans for the upcoming school year, parents and staff are concerned about safety. While experts say we are not in the same situation as the U.S., they believe we can expect coronavirus cases in schools, and should prepare accordingly.

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Coronavirus: Growing calls for Ontario government to rethink back-to-school plan

Right now in Canada, it’s not the same, Saxinger said.

“I would not extrapolate their experience to what we’d expect our experience to be,” she said. “In most places, if the community is not having uncontrolled spreads, schools seem to reflect that.

“Although I don’t think we ever expect to have zero cases in schools whatsoever, I think it’s very reasonable to have schools open again in most places in Canada, if not all places in Canada, as long as we also try to figure out the best possible precautions at the same time.”

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Countries have had mixed experiences with reopening schools. A recent study examining Australian schools found that transmission rates were low – something experienced in many countries, Saxinger said. By contrast, opening schools in Israel has been blamed for new community outbreaks there.

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“By and large, my impression is that schools reflect the community and schools don’t necessarily amplify the community,” she said.

Dr. Anna Banerji, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at the University of Toronto, thinks that reopening schools will increase the risk of coronavirus transmission.

“Any time you take a bunch of people and you put them in a closed space together, it increases the risk of transmission,” she said.

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Cold and flu season will complicate things, too, she said, because it will be hard to tell whether a given child’s cough is COVID-19 or any other more ordinary disease.

What matters is what kinds of precautions schools take, and how they handle sick children if it happens, she said.

“Doing the best we can as far as cohorting kids can help, masks are positive, but also real funding towards sanitation, cleaning and physical distance,” she said.

In Ontario, elementary students will be back at school full-time in September, and will remain in the same group of classmates and teachers for the full day, if possible. Students in grades 4 and up will be asked to wear masks.

In B.C., students won’t be required to wear masks, but will also be kept in the same group as much as possible, though a group might include several classes’ worth of kids. Kids in the province had returned to school already, part-time, in June, and only two cases of the virus were reported.

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Saxinger agrees that keeping kids in smaller groups so they have fewer contacts, and physically distancing them when possible, are good ideas.

Policing young children so that they maintain physical distance is unrealistic, Banerji said, and it’s inevitable that there will be some mixing.

“I think that anyone who’s sick needs to be at home,” Banerji said.

She thinks that given that we probably don’t have the capacity to test every child with respiratory symptoms, making sure they stay home until three days after symptoms subside is a reasonable precaution.

This also means that parents’ employers will have to be flexible, allowing them the time off to watch their child if the child has symptoms and has to stay home from school, Saxinger noted.

And, if the situation in the community or a school gets especially bad, classrooms might need to be temporarily closed to “let it burn out,” Banerji said.

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School reopening plans need to be malleable, too, Saxinger said.

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“I just think that it’s a fascinatingly bizarre time because we genuinely don’t have a playbook for what’s optimal. We’re trying to get one.”

We don’t really know what will happen, she said, so it’s important that school reopening plans are constantly assessed and modified depending on things like outbreaks in the schools, community transmission levels, and how well students respond to the measures imposed upon them.

“There’s a lot of pandemic left,” Saxinger said. “And really, anything we can figure out about the best way to do things, and things that clearly should not be done, we should be very rigorous about figuring that out and assessing it and sharing it.”

Keeping kids isolated at home and not at school carries its own risks for their mental health and education, she said, and schools should be a priority.

“We should prioritize safe school opening over almost anything else that we’re opening in society, honestly.”

— with files from Richard Zussman and Gabby Rodrigues, Global News 

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