Manitoba

No return to school in sight for Manitoba kids with complex health issues during pandemic

While some Manitoba students were back in their schools this week, that's not an option during the pandemic for some vulnerable students living with underlying health conditions.

'There's an elevated risk there for very little benefit,' Winnipeg mother says

Beckett Meyer, 11, and his mother, Desniege, have been strictly isolating since January because Beckett has a compromised immune system. (John Einarson/CBC)

Beckett Meyer, 11, has not left his home since January — except to attend doctor's appointments.

And even though some of his classmates are returning to classrooms this month as Manitoba schools partially reopen, Beckett, who is severely immunocompromised, won't be able to join them.

Catching any illness, including COVID-19, could be a matter of life and death for the Grade 6 student.

"Beckett is not likely to survive that infection. He's already got lung function at about 62 per cent," said his mother, Desneige Meyer.

When he does leave his home, he washes his hands, puts on a mask and plays a game with his mother to see who can touch the fewest surfaces.

Every object touched is one point.

"I'm often the winner because Mom gets the elevators and doors," Beckett says with a grin.

We have very little evidence on the effects of COVID-19 on kids with … immunocompromising conditions.- Dr. Sergio Fanella

The stress of the pandemic has made for many sleepless nights, says his mother.

"When we leave the house now, we're not only afraid of people that you can visibly see who are sniffling, or sneezing or coughing, but you don't know who is a silent carrier."

Beckett lives with cystic fibrosis and cystic fibrosis-related diabetes. He has been battling a secondary lung infection — non-tuberculosis mycobacterium — since November, his mother said.

He has been isolating at home full time during the pandemic, while he receives treatment and joins his class for online courses. That reality will continue, even as others have started a limited return to classrooms.

"There's an elevated risk there for very little benefit," Meyer said.

Hoping for fall return

She hopes to be able to send her son to start at his new junior high this fall, but there are no guarantees. The decision will hinge on the province's COVID-19 caseload and the measures school divisions take to keep kids safe, she said. 

The mother of two, who is working on her PhD in public health, said in addition to smaller class sizes and frequent handwashing breaks, she wants to see health screening and temperature checks for all students.

"Keeping buildings safe is not just relying on two metres of distance, but making sure somebody's not bringing their germs into the space in the first place," she said.

Back to school is looking like a distant reality for 11-year-old Russell Lepp too. He was born with a congenital heart defect and had a transplant when he was just five months old. 

The Grade 5 student is healthy and strong, but the anti-rejection drugs he takes for his heart suppress his immune system, his father said. 

Donald Lepp says his 11-year-old son, Russell, will not be going back to school in June. Russell has a suppressed immune system and his family wants to limit possible exposure to COVID-19. (Submitted by Donald Lepp)

The family has been isolating since March 12, when Manitoba announced its first case of COVID-19, and they have no plans of letting up yet.

"The feeling was that we're learning more about COVID-19 all the time — we know much more than we did six or eight weeks ago — and hopefully by August we will know that much more that we could send him back to school safely," Donald Lepp said.

For now, Lepp said his son's doctors have advised a return to school could be risky — especially because his wife also lives with the same congenital heart condition.

Little data on COVID-19 effects on sick kids

Dr. Sergio Fanella, program director of pediatric infectious diseases at the University of Manitoba, said the overall risk of children becoming sick with COVID-19 is low. But it's still not known how the virus affects children with underlying health conditions.

"So far we have very little evidence on the effects of COVID-19 on kids with medical co-morbidities, immunocompromising conditions," he said.

"That's in contrast to COVID-19 in adults, where we know many of the cases overall, and many of the severe cases, tend to have co-morbidities associated with them."

Fanella said some small studies have emerged suggesting children who are immunocompromised don't seem to be at a higher risk for severe outcomes, but it's still too early to draw conclusions.

For now, his advice to families is to do what they're most comfortable with.

"At the end of the day, there will never be zero risk of infection," he said.

"Most likely families will have to do their own individualized risk assessment and decision-making."

For kids with compromised immunity, that may mean talking with a doctor or teachers to decide if going back to school is the right choice, he said.

Beckett, throwing a tennis ball for his Yorkshire terrier, Coco, in his backyard, says he doesn't mind the extra time at home.

"I never really did like school so I'm good with not going back. But at the same time I am missing my friends," he said. 

As the province gradually reopens, his mother hopes people will continue to follow public health orders and do their best to stay healthy.

"I would just hope that Canadians and Manitobans look at Beckett and remember that some of us are vulnerable and just keep doing what you're doing," she said. "Nobody wants to experience COVID-19, especially not us."

No return to school for kids with health issues during pandemic

CBC News Manitoba

8 months agoVideo
2:04
Beckett Meyer, 11, and his mother, Desniege, have been strictly isolating since January because Beckett has a compromised immune system. 2:04

About the Author

Jill Coubrough

Reporter, CBC News

Jill Coubrough is a video journalist with CBC News based in Winnipeg. She previously worked as a reporter for CBC News in Halifax and as an associate producer for the CBC documentary series Land and Sea. She holds a degree in political studies from the University of Manitoba and a degree in journalism from the University of King's College. Email: jillian.coubrough@cbc.ca.

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