When should kids return to in-person learning? Western University researcher, colleagues finding answers

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As students continue with online learning due to the coronavirus pandemic, researchers continue to grapple with two crucial questions: when and how should children go back to in-person learning?

A Western University professor, alongside colleagues from across the globe, are attempting to find answers.

Dr. Charles Weijer told 980 CFPL’s Jess Brady on Let’s Talk London that clustered, randomized trials is one way to ensure policymakers have rigorous data to inform their decisions on when students should return to school.

“That’s a trial where entire communities or regions would be randomized to a policy of reopening schools under precautions while (in other) regions, maintaining school closures,” Weijer explained.

“That would allow us to compare how different regions do in terms of the number of (COVID-19) cases.”

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In Ontario, some students will return to in-class learning in late January while others in areas with higher rates of community transmission will remain learning online until at least February.

Weijer said without randomly selecting which schools will remain closed and which ones will reopen, researchers won’t be able to determine whether schools are driving community infection rates or vice versa.

“We’ve got some pieces of the puzzle; we know that children, especially young children, seem to be less likely to get ill than adults. We know they’re less likely to transmit the virus. But we don’t know to what degree are schools drivers of infection within the community,” said Weijer.

Reopenings will provide an opportunity to answer questions about the impact of the closures on the transmission of the virus, as well as how restrictions can be safely lifted, the researchers said in a paper published in the journal Clinical Trials.

“As COVID-19 cases and deaths (impact) the world, the question of when and how to withdraw public health policies is pressing,” said co-author Karla Hemming, a biostatistics professor from the University of Birmingham.

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“Many regions face new waves of outbreaks and new lockdowns. Whether and when schools can reopen and stay open will continue to be a question of utmost importance, but policymakers are left to make such decisions in the absence of rigorous evidence.”

The impact of school closures is exceptionally broad and serious, said Weijer.

“It’s not just a matter of keeping our kids safe from COVID-19 or keeping our community safe from potential drivers of rates of infection in the community. It’s also the burden on an entire generation of children in terms of their educational experience, their socialization, and on parents as well, who may not be able to return to work or may have to hire child care.”

The paper specified that running such a study should only be considered when community transmission is under control and the health system has sufficient capacity. School reopenings should operate under precautions including social distancing, mask wearing and possibly testing. Teachers and children who are clinically vulnerable should be allowed to stay home.

-With files from 980 CFPL’s Jess Brady and Jaclyn Carbone 

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