School's return raises worries about exposing seniors to COVID-19

In CBC London's audience survey about the return to school, many expressed concern that the return to class could expose older family members to COVID-19 infection.

Some London parents planning to keep kids and their grandparents separate for a few weeks

Many Londoners who responded to a survey about the return to school say they're concerned that students in their family could carry home the virus and infect older, more vulnerable members of their family. (Terry Roberts/CBC)

Amid concerns about everything from class sizes to masking protocols, and worries about whether busing will be safe or how online learning will work, many Londoners are fearful the return to school could raise the risk of exposing seniors in their family to COVID-19. 

CBC London posted an online survey last week asking our audience to share their concerns about the return to school. We received responses from parents and teachers, many torn between the desire to get kids back into the classroom to resume learning, weighed against the new risks of infection it could create. 

One concern we heard consistently: Many worry that young people, mixing together at school after months of careful physical distancing, could carry COVID home and potentially infect older relatives. 

Their fears come from statistics that show while young people infected tend to survive COVID-19, they can play a key role in fuelling its spread. Meanwhile, 71 per cent of Canadians who've died of coronavirus were 80 or older. 

Those stats have Londoner Reem Sultan concerned. 

She's a pharmacist and a mother of four kids, two in university, one starting high school. Her youngest, an 11-year-old, is getting ready to start Grade 6. 

Sultan is concerned about the seniors in her family, including her grandmother Sobhia Gafaar who is nearing 100 years old and being cared for by Sultan's parents, who themselves are in their 70s but live in a separate residence. 

"She is our blessing," said Sultan of her grandmother. "We love her very much and we want to keep her healthy during this."

Pre-COVID, members of the Sultan family spanning four generations typically got together up to three times a week for meals. 

"We're Muslim and eating and sharing meals together is a big part of our culture. So it's become difficult for the grandparents. We have kept the kids away on purpose to protect them."

When school resumes, Sultan plans to take more precautions while closely watching the local case counts. 

It's a similar story for Londoner Jennifer Ayers. 

She has two children starting in a new school in September, one entering junior Kindergarten and another heading into Grade 5. 

There are six seniors in her family she's concerned about, and she plans to keep them separate from her kids until sometime in October. They've been careful about maintaining a tight social circle since the outbreak came to Canada in March.

"We live in a bubble, but the bubble is going to be popped the moment they step into a new school environment," said Ayers. "We don't know what's coming back into the house."

Sobhia Gaffar is close to 100 years old and has great-grand children returning to school later this month. Her grand daughter Reem Sultan says the family wants to do everything they can't to protect Sobhia from COVID-19 infection. 'She is our blessing,' she said. (Submitted by Reem Sultan)

Dr. Samir Sinha is the director of geriatrics at Mount Sinai and the University Health Network Hospitals in Toronto. He said it's a legitimate concern that the return to school could put older relatives at risk. 

"The majority of the cases are in much younger populations now, and that's where we see COVID-19 spreading a little bit more frequently.

"That could potentially also play a role in bringing that that back into the family and potentially harming older people in the household who might be more immuno-compromised or risk of the complications, including death." 

However, Sinha also said it's also important that families keep an eye on case numbers in the community. He said keeping older relatives away from their loved ones can also have negative effects on their health. In areas where numbers of new cases are low, isolating seniors from the rest of the family may not be warranted. 

"I wouldn't want to say that we should cut off all communication and contact," he said. "Because that can be distressing to both the children and their grandparents."

Both Sinha and Ayers say they understand that staying away from older family members also raises potential health risks. Their challenge is to find a balance between protecting older family members from COVID-19, while minimizing their isolation.


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