COVID-19 variant could 'spread like wildfire through schools' when classrooms reopen, pediatrician worries

Some Alberta doctors say a decision by the province to send kids back to classrooms next week could fuel another surge of COVID-19 infections.

Education Minister Adriana LaGrange says in-person learning to resume Jan. 11

Some Alberta doctors say a decision by the province to send kids back to classrooms next week could fuel another COVID-19 surge. (Halfpoint/Shutterstock)

Some Alberta doctors say a decision by the province to send kids back to classrooms next week could fuel another surge of COVID-19 infections. 

Students in grades 7 to 12 have been learning virtually since the beginning of December, and students in all grades are learning remotely this week.

Education Minister Adriana LaGrange confirmed on Twitter on Monday that students are set to return to in-person classes on Jan. 11.

Calgary pediatric infectious disease physician, Dr. Jim Kellner says now is not the time for kids to return to schools.

"It is definitely a concern," he said. 

"We certainly haven't achieved good control in the community yet."

Kellner said while Alberta's COVID-19 numbers are improving, there is still a high level of disease in the community and sending kids back could ignite further spread.

"There could be more school outbreaks and more disease in the community related to schools and it could contribute to a worsening of this current wave again."

Scientists are still learning about the role children play in spreading the virus. Kellner says they're now finding that kids — even those under 10 — can often transmit it without showing symptoms.

Dr. Tehseen Ladha, a pediatrician with the University of Alberta, says the discovery of a new variant of COVID-19 that spreads more easily makes the situation more worrisome.

"It could spread like wildfire through schools which means it will be brought into many, many households in the province, and this could be a catastrophe," she said.

Just one case of the new COVID-19 variant has been confirmed in Alberta so far, but Ladha says, in the absence of stricter travel restrictions, the variant strain of the virus is very likely to become more prevalent in Alberta.

"It's been shown to be transmitted very quickly amongst kids in schools, and we just don't know enough about how much of it is in our community, and how it's going to act to be able to simply open up schools, without waiting and seeing where we're at and how we can mitigate the impact of this first," she said. 

"We really need to think about schools as a factor in propagating this community transmission and driving it higher."

The province says while kids are set to return to school next week, those plans could change based on the advice of Alberta's top doctor.

"We are in regular contact with education partners, including school boards across Alberta to deal with the challenges that arise during learning in a COVID-19 environment," said the minister's press secretary, Nicole Sparrow, in an email.

"The safety and well-being of our staff and students continues to be our number one priority."

With files from Jennifer Lee.


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