Just days into the new school year, COVID-19 outbreaks have closed schools across Canada – prompting concerns about how the rest of the school year will proceed.
“We do know, obviously, that there is a lot of spread going on to schools, and that’s a concern,” said Dr. Stephen Freedman, a professor of pediatrics and emergency medicine at the University of Calgary, who also works at the Alberta Children’s Hospital.
“We’re only at the beginning of September and it is going to get much more challenging as the number of cases rise,” he said.
On Sunday, Prince Edward Island’s chief health officer, Dr. Heather Morrison, announced that schools in Charlottetown will be temporarily closed to contain an outbreak of COVID-19 among students.
“We do have a serious situation with COVID-19 transmission in P.E.I. involving children,” Morrison told reporters. “At this point, we do not know the extent of COVID-19 transmission in our schools or in our province.”
In Alberta, where a school isn’t considered to be having an outbreak unless 10 per cent of students are absent due to COVID-19 or respiratory illness, schools in Slave Lake, Edmonton and High Prairie have all declared outbreaks early in the school year.
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Schools have been shut down in Eastern Ontario and cases have been reported in schools in the Greater Toronto Area.
Meanwhile, Quebec has introduced rapid COVID-19 tests as a means to control outbreaks in some schools in Montreal and Laval.
And in New Brunswick, 11 schools have confirmed outbreaks, according to provincial officials. On Monday, the province announced that students must wear masks in common areas and while in class for at least two weeks.
“There have been a significant number of cases reported amongst schoolchildren in the province,” chief medical officer Dr. Jennifer Russell said on Monday. “I have children and, in fact, one of their schools was affected today. And so I can understand what kind of angst and anxiety that can cause.”
Most of these cases were due to socializing over the Labour Day weekend, she said, and generally, students were infected by a family member.
“When young children are infected, it is most often due to contact with a family member or a household member who is not vaccinated,” she said.
Russell and the New Brunswick government are urging everyone who is eligible to get vaccinated in order to protect children under 12, who can’t yet get the shot.
When the virus gets introduced to a school, it spreads quickly, especially in environments where students aren’t masked and aren’t keeping their distance from one another, Freedman said.
“Once a case gets into school and it spreads to several other children, it may be very hard to control the Delta variant, particularly because even if schools are doing a good job during school time hours, children do socialize after school and many parents need to also then take it upon themselves to be doing the right thing at home,” he said.
Russell says students who exhibit symptoms should be tested for COVID-19, and that increasing masking, hygiene and social distancing measures is a good idea to cut down on cases.
“What we’re starting to see now is a little bit of relaxed policies in many jurisdictions across the country, and that is going to lead to increased spread, particularly the Delta variant we know is much more contagious than the prior variants that we dealt with last year,” he said. “So if anything, we need to increase our public health measures and methods that we’re taking to prevent transmission both in and outside of schools because schools don’t work in isolation.”
The last thing anyone wants is to close schools, given how students have suffered over the last year, he said.
“This has been probably one of the most challenging periods in recent memory for our youth,” he said.
“And keeping schools open, keeping children academically engaged as well as socially engaged, is so important to their mental health right now. And the best way to keep schools open and classrooms open is prevent transmission.”
—With files from Heather Yourex-West, Morgan Black and Kirby Bourne, Global News and The Canadian Press