Courtney Dillenbeck is excited for her two children to get back to school in Calgary this September, but she’s unsure what things will look like into the fall.
“With the kids not being vaccinated, it’s just really unpredictable going into the school year,” she said. “There’s really no knowing what’s going to happen or it’s hard to know what to expect this year.”
As COVID-19 case numbers rise across Canada, health experts aren’t sure either, but they are concerned.
“It’s pretty clear that cases are going to rise as we continue in the fall,” said Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious diseases specialist at Toronto General Hospital. “And when we look at where the virus is circulating, it’s pretty clear that it’s disproportionately impacting the unvaccinated crowd. So that’s who’s getting infected now. I think that’s who’s going to continue to get infected, unfortunately.”
While the school that Dillenbeck’s kids go to is requiring masks in the classroom – something that she’s happy about – the Alberta government has left that decision up to individual school districts.
B.C., Manitoba, Quebec, Nova Scotia and Ontario have announced that masks will be mandatory in school, and some provinces are requiring eligible teachers to be vaccinated or show negative tests for COVID-19.
With children under 12 unable to get vaccinated, safety in school depends partly on what’s happening in the community, said Dr. Ken Farion, an emergency physician and medical director for strategy, quality, and systems improvement at CHEO.
“I think we should be confident that schools are a safe place for students, providing that the community around them is safe,” he said. “And so if the COVID case numbers really spike up and we’re seeing a lot of transmission in the community, then we can expect that there will be some transmissions in schools that potentially will impact our students and potentially staff members who have chosen to not be vaccinated.”
That means that the best way to prevent school outbreaks is to keep case numbers down as much as possible, he said, by keeping up with measures like social distancing, wearing masks and of course, vaccination.
Making sure that kids can get back to school is very important for their mental health, said Sheri Madigan, an associate professor of psychology and Canada research chair at the University of Calgary, and co-author of a recent meta-analysis looking at pandemic mental health in kids.
“We’ve seen a doubling in terms of their anxiety and their depression when we compare their depression and anxiety to before the pandemic. So we know that they’re showing a lot of mental distress. And we’ve also seen that this distress tends to ebb and flow with restrictions,” she said.
“Kids really thrive off social interaction, and when they’re doing in-person learning, they’re interacting with their peers, they’re interacting with their teachers,” she said. Many youth even access mental health services at school, she said, “So we know that there is a lot of valuable components to be in school doing in-person learning over and above just the educational component.”
Dillenbeck says her family has had “a taste of life going back to normal” over the summer, and having more restrictions again — even if it means keeping the kids in school — will be hard.
“Maybe putting more restrictions in place just guarantees the kids have a great school year, that it’s less interrupted,” she said. “We all kind of have a little bit more stability if there’s restrictions in place and we’re not in this place where we’re isolating or we’re scared to go out in public.”
Still, she said, she would consider keeping her son and daughter at home if case numbers got too high.
“Worst case scenario for me is obviously having to see a sick child,” she said. “The worst case for me would be my child contracting COVID and having the unknown of how they’re going to feel or how they’re going to react to it.
“So if it comes down to it, I would pull my child if the numbers got extremely crazy and I didn’t feel like the situation was safe.”
– With files from Jamie Mauracher, Global News