Is it safe to go to school during the pandemic?

CBC Kids News • Published 2021-05-04 06:00

Doctors say schools are important for kids’ mental health


Open. Close. Open. Close.

It’s like watching Pac-Man’s mouth as it snakes its way through the maze.

As provinces and territories deal with the third wave of the pandemic, schools are once again closing, sending kids to learn at home.

Zavier Bond, 14, from North Sydney, Nova Scotia, is one of them.

As COVID-19 cases slowly started to rise across his province in the last couple of weeks, Zavier was afraid to go to school.

“I’m scared about COVID,” he told CBC Kids News.

Zavier Bond, 14, said schools should reopen ‘when cases go down a lot.’ (Image submitted by Lisa Bond)

He decided to stay home even when schools were open, rather than putting himself and his family at risk.

“If it can be in Walmart or in Sobeys, why can’t it be in schools?” he said. “It’s like saying there’s a barrier that’s blocking COVID from being in schools.”

A few days later, the province closed all the schools and Zavier started learning online, which reduced his stress level.

COVID doesn’t spread in schools, researchers say

But the idea of a barrier in schools isn’t so far off.

Dr. Andrew Lynk, the head of pediatrics at the IWK Health Centre in Halifax, Nova Scotia, said that even though cases of COVID-19 are up and some kids are getting sick, research shows that they likely aren’t catching it at school, he said.

“They’re [getting it] from social gatherings, friends or families or small restaurants or gyms and things like that, not from schools,” he said.

Kids sit at desks in a classroom wearing masks.

Research shows that younger kids aren’t likely to spread COVID-19 as much as older kids. (Image credit: Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Yes, when there is already a lot of community spread, students and staff could spread the virus in the school.

But Lynk said “schools contribute just a very little bit to the general number of cases in the community.”

That’s especially true among kids younger than 12.

“They don't tend to have as much virus in them,” said Lynk. “They don't cough as hard as older adults might and spread it more quickly.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published research earlier this year that backs up what Lynk is saying.

It said “in-person learning in schools has not been associated with substantial community transmission.”

Benefits of being in school

Lynk was part of a group of pediatricians urging the province of Nova Scotia to keep schools open because there are also risks associated with staying home.

“In-class learning is the best for kids,” he said.

“And it's not only just the learning part, it's also the support that a lot of children receive that they may not be able to get at home.”

Lynk mentioned supports like mental health services that kids rely on when in school.

Also, breakfast and lunch programs are important for kids who don’t get the nutrition they need at home.

Kids wearing masks cross the street in front of school buses.

Many doctors say schools should stay open while other services close to prevent the spread of COVID-19. (Image credit: Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

Earlier this year, Toronto’s Sick Kids Hospital published an article recommending schools close only as a “last resort.”

The researchers said schools should be the last thing to close and the first thing to open when bringing in restrictions.

Adopting a hybrid system

Lynk did acknowledge that in some cases, when the community spread is very high, schools do have to adjust.

He suggested rather than completely closing, schools should consider opening at 50 per cent capacity.

That’s the kind of arrangement Meera Pande has been participating in for a few months.

The Grade 11 student from Montreal goes to school every other day.

“I really like it,” she said.

Meera Pande, 17, said it was an adjustment at first, but she really enjoys going to school on alternating days. (Image submitted by Meera Pande)

Meera said there are only 10 students in her class when she goes to school.

It means staying two metres apart from others is easier, especially since teenagers have a hard time following rules, she said.

“When you're in an environment where there's so many people around you, you start to think like, well, what's the point of following these rules when everyone is already in this building?”

A few weeks ago, the province wanted students to return to school full-time.

She and her friends protested by encouraging other students to write letters to politicians and school boards, urging them to reconsider.

Meera, centre, and her friends started a letter-writing campaign to convince the province to stick with a hybrid system. (Image submitted by Meera Pande)

“The goal of that letter was to try and be heard, because we weren't really feeling like the government was listening to us or understood our point of view,” Meera said.

Eventually, the government decided to stick with the hybrid system.

“I don't know if the letter specifically made a difference, but I do know that there was a lot of backlash to that decision,” Meera said.

In Quebec, officials have struggled to get the number of cases under control during the third wave.

Kids aren’t getting very sick

Lynk said the decision to close schools is “a judgment call,” and it isn’t an easy decision.

Many factors need to be considered, like how many COVID-19 cases there are and how it affects teachers.

Fence with a sign that reads No Mask No Entry. Our staff and students thank you.

Wearing masks in schools can help prevent COVID-19 from spreading. (Image credit: Tijana Martin/The Canadian Press)

Even though there have been cases in the news recently of younger people getting sick, pediatricians agree that most kids who have COVID-19 don’t get very ill.

“It's very, very rare for children to end up in hospital with COVID and even more rare for them to die with COVID,” Lynk said.



TOP IMAGE CREDIT: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

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