Rising COVID-19 cases spark talk of widespread school closures, extending holiday break
Disease experts differ on how involved schools should be in any return to lockdowns
The possibility of COVID-19 forcing another widespread school shutdown worries Theresa Morris, as her seven-year-old returned to her Surrey, B.C., school only about a month ago.
Last spring, Morris struggled to juggle her daughter Azel's schooling, her newborn, George, and her own work from home. At the start of this school year, rising coronavirus cases in the Lower Mainland led their family to keep Azel at home. Then, in mid-September, Morris tested positive for COVID-19.
She had mild symptoms and recovered during two weeks of quarantining apart from her partner and young children. In the meantime, however, Azel's frustration toward remote learning became too much. In mid-October, the youngster was back at school in person.
"She was so happy to get back to school, because she was a seven-year-old girl that was just shutting down mentally, and going back was a huge relief. For schools to be shutting down again and to go through this again is really worrisome. I worry about her education," said Morris, who saw a trio of schools in her Fraser Valley Health Region close due to outbreaks last weekend.
"Working from home and watching a baby and the seven-year-old, I don't know how I would manage that. I don't think I could manage that."
Rising COVID-19 cases, including inside Canadian schools, are sparking debate about the potential for another widespread school shutdown, with some proposing extensions to the upcoming holiday break. But determining if and when schools should close — and for how long — remains a moving target.
As of Wednesday, Nunavut becomes the first among Canada's provinces and territories to shutter schools across the board once again. All the territory's classrooms are closed for at least two weeks, with teachers delivering instruction remotely, after its COVID-19 caseload more than doubled from a day earlier to a high of 60 cases on Tuesday.
The premiers of Manitoba and Quebec have acknowledged they're considering extending the upcoming school holiday beyond the two weeks already scheduled.
"To be completely transparent, what we are looking at is perhaps extending the winter break after Christmas and New Year's … so there can be a type of quarantine for children before they go back to school following these family gatherings that will occur during the holiday season," Premier François Legault said during his COVID-19 news conference Tuesday, after floating the idea last week.
Ontario, however, is nixing the idea.
After consulting with Ontario's Chief Medical Officer of Health and its Public Health Measures Table, Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce said Wednesday that "an extended winter holiday is not necessary at this time, given Ontario's strong safety protocols, low levels of transmission and safety within our schools."
Rob Fleming, British Columbia's education minister, has also said he wants to avoid closing daycares and K-12 schools completely even amid wider community lockdown measures.
WATCH | What indicators inform the decision when to close schools?
Ottawa epidemiologist Raywat Deonandan is among those who believes that schools should be one of the last things closed.
He looks to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's document guiding school decision-making, which weighs core indicators such as the number of new cases per day and test positivity rate alongside secondary indicators such as hospital capacity and community outbreaks.
"I don't think there is a lot of stomach for an outright closure across the province. There might be targeted closures in extremely hotbed areas, where the local health-care capacity is being stretched," said Deonandan, an associate professor in the University of Ottawa's faculty of health sciences.
However, he does think an extended holiday break could present a timely opportunity — if it comes with a specific caveat.
"Over Christmas break, you're not having parties, you're not out socializing. Simply not being in school isn't the solution. It's not being at school and not socializing outside of school," Deonandan said.
"Because there [are] going to be school closures anyway, as part of the holidays, it's an opportunity to keep the kids home maybe a week longer — and close some other things — to see if we can use this time to crush transmission in a kind of circuit breaker approach."
WATCH | What is a circuit breaker lockdown?
"Circuit-breaker lockdowns" — enacting sharp restrictions including shutting down non-essential services, but with a defined end point — have been discussed in several regions. However, whether schools should be included in these types of lockdowns has been a thornier question.
Many public health officials say schools have reflected, not driven, community transmission of the coronavirus.
"To some extent, to maximize the benefit of a circuit breaker, you could make an argument that school should be included at least for the first couple of weeks, because that's the kind of crucial period," said Lynora Saxinger, an infectious disease specialist and associate professor at the University of Alberta in Edmonton.
If data doesn't indicate schools are contributing to transmission, "I do think it might be OK to leave them open during a circuit breaker.
"If we cannot be sure of that, then I think it becomes much more important to consider at least an upfront inclusion of the schools."
The overall decision about implementing more stringent lockdown measures, however, cannot wait for the school holiday break, according to Saxinger.
"If you're in a situation of an evolving epidemic surge, that waiting till Christmas actually puts us behind, because the decisions around measures meant to reduce the spread immediately really are something that is time-sensitive," she said.
'Things are not going well at all'
Virologist Jason Kindrachuk believes some communities in Canada have already passed the threshold to consider closing schools.
"I crossed that bar a while ago. We are in a tough position, and I think that the time has been ripe for a while to be going through a very tough lockdown and bringing in those restrictions," said the assistant professor and Canada Research Chair in emerging viruses at the University of Manitoba.
"We know in schools it doesn't look like there's broad transmission. We're not seeing massive amounts of superspreader events. But where the grey area is: once those kids leave and go back home or go out in their communities, what is the role that they play in transmission?"
Kindrachuk, currently based in Saskatoon to help lead COVID-19 research efforts through a university partnership, is concerned how quickly cases are rising in Alberta, B.C., Saskatchewan and the North. He recognizes there may be reticence from political leaders about harsh lockdown measures resembling last spring and summer, including with schools.
"The unfortunate reality is that things are not going well at all," he said.
"We have to be as adaptable and fast moving as the virus is. … We need to make those tough decisions and we need to accept that what we knew a week ago was not necessarily what we know now."
While news of two potential coronavirus vaccines has buoyed many, Kindrachuk included, he urged people to keep in mind they are still some time away from being in wide distribution.
"We have to keep our eye on the ball right now. Everything that we've been doing to try and reduce transmission of this virus, we have to keep doing," he said.
"Until we have everybody vaccinated and we have control of the virus, we are still within the throes of what the virus is throwing at us."
With files from Deana Sumanac-Johnson and Sharon Wu