As parents, teachers and school administrators across the province continue to prepare for children heading back to the classroom, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Alberta’s top doctor is standing behind the province’s school re-entry amid questions and concerns.
Dr. Deena Hinshaw said Thursday she is planning to send her own children back to school in September, and took the opportunity to expand on the evidence she considered in her decision to proceed with Scenario 1 of the re-entry plan.
“Some may wonder why we would open schools at all during a pandemic,” she said. “My answer is that we must look at the overall health of our population and everything that contributes to health.”
Hinshaw said officials can’t look at COVID-19 alone, but also the other risks, adding that measures put in place months ago to limit the spread of the virus “came with their own risks to health and wellness.”
“We must learn how to live with this virus,” she said. “And how to find the right balance between preventing uncontrolled COVID-19 spread and preventing the harms that come from shutting down essential parts of our society.”
Hinshaw said it’s been proven by the Canadian Pediatric Society, American Academy of Pediatrics and other organizations that the “safe return to school is critical to the physical and mental health and well being of students and families.”
She said school is about more than just education — it also contributes to childrens’ mental health, socialization, food security, and for some, protection from other harms that could be present in their homes.
Hinshaw referenced a “dizzying array” of information available on COVID-19 transmission and children in schools, and admitted some of it can be confusing for people, especially when it seems contradictory. She said her recommendations came after a “review of all the evidence” available from both Alberta and around the world.
“First of all, if children are infected with COVID-19, they are more likely to be mildly sick and fewer are hospitalized. Secondly, childhood infections, particularly in younger children, do not seem to drive community transmission — this was equally true in places like Sweden, where elementary schools never closed, and in Finland, where schools did close,” she said.
“Third, young children seem less likely than adults to infect others, while older children seem to transmit infection in a way more similar to adults.”
Hinshaw also said it was “abundantly clear” that one of the biggest factors in reopening schools was the degree of community transmission in the communities, towns, cities or even countries where schools are open.
Despite being confident in the government’s current plan for the fast-approaching school year, Hinshaw said people can’t let their guard down with students heading back to classrooms.
“We can reasonably expect some infections at schools,” she said.
“Our job is to limit the number of these infections, prevent large outbreaks and prevent onward spread of these sporadic cases. There are families for whom the risk of a sporadic infection is significant due to chronic conditions in the student or a family member. Each family must weigh their options and make the best choice for their situation.”
She stressed there is no wrong decision for parents when it comes to choosing whether to send their children to in-school or online learning.
Families and students can read updated, detailed guidance on how the government will respond to students with symptoms, or if cases are identified in schools. There is also new guidance online for when it comes to substitute teachers.
Updated case numbers
As of Thursday, Alberta had a total of 1,084 active cases of COVID-19 in the province, with 103 of those being confirmed in the last 24 hours.
Hinshaw also reported one additonal death on Thursday.
“It is tempting to become numbed to these numbers after a while. Yet each number represents a person who is left behind grieving family and friends,” Hinshaw said.
Forty-three Albertans infected with the novel coronavirus are being treated in hospitals, with 12 of them being treated in ICUs.
More than 690,000 people have been tested for the novel coronavirus in Alberta, with more than 855,000 tests in total being done.
Labs in Alberta completed more than 9,200 tests in the last 24 hours, an increase Hinshaw said was likely due to the number of teachers and school staff getting tested ahead of their return to school.