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There are risks to Ontario schools reopening full-time but ways to mitigate them, experts say

The first day of school in Ontario is less than six weeks away and while health experts say there are risks involved in welcoming kids back in class full-time, they say those risks can be mitigated.

Education minister set to release fall reopening plan for schools this week

Students are pictured as they were welcomed back to school with physical distancing protocols in place at Lynn Valley Elementary in North Vancouver, British Columbia on Monday, June 1, 2020. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

The first day of school in Ontario is less than six weeks away and health experts say while there are risks involved it's possible full-time classes could resume safely —  if the right protocols are in place and the number of new cases is low.

Ontario school boards have until Aug. 4 to submit their fall reopening plans, but several boards, including the Toronto Catholic District School Board, have already submitted their plans to the provincial government, which include full classes when September arrives. 

Still, Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce is set to release the government's reopening plan this week. Premier Doug Ford has said he'd like to see students return to class full-time and so have officials at SickKids Hospital.

Dr. Susy Hota, an infection prevention and control expert with Toronto's University Health Network, says the government has to strike the right balance between keeping students and the general public safe from COVID-19, while mitigating the physical and mental health effects of keeping children out of class. 

"There really is no clear right answer as to how to do this," she told CBC's Metro Morning Monday.

Dr. Susy Hota, medical director for infection prevention and control at the University Health Network in Toronto, says it's important the number of new cases of COVID-19 is low when schools reopen. (Tim Fraser)

Hota says it's "very easy"  for infections to get introduced into schools and says the most important thing is to reopen schools when community transmission rates are low.

Ashleigh Tuite, an epidemiologist at the University of Toronto's Dalla Lana School of Public Health, says schools likely shouldn't reopen unless there are roughly fewer than 100 new cases a day across Ontario that aren't concentrated in one part of the province. 

Students practise physical distancing in a Vancouver classroom. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

She says before schools reopen, health officials should be able to identify where new cases are coming from. Hota says it's important strong screening is in place, rapid testing and contact tracing.

"I think that will change the outcome quite dramatically," Hota said.

Tuite says if a case were to be identified in a school, the biggest concern is ensuring it doesn't cause a larger outbreak. 

"The reason that schools are particularly concerning is that they have the potential to effectively amplify transmission," she said, noting the virus could then reach other students and staff, people in their households and the larger community.

"It's a bigger ecosystem than just the schools," she said.

Mitigating the risks

Tuite says it's imperative that students or staff who have any COVID-19 symptoms stay home, but she also says that can be challenging since some people don't show any signs, particularly young children.

That's where prevention in the building comes into play: physical distancing, proper hand washing and personal protective equipment when needed.

Tuite suggests masks for children may be useful in hallways and exiting and entering the buildings, but says they may not be necessary if they're sitting in desks six or more feet apart. Like other health experts, she suggests keeping class sizes to 15 students. 

Epidemiologist Ashleigh Tuite says the best way to prevent COVID-19 outbreaks in schools is to ensure case numbers are low before reopening them. (Nick Iwanyshyn/University of Toronto)

"Based on the average size of a classroom and how much space you would want to keep between individuals, [15 students] would allow you to have that space," she said.

She also says fewer people are disrupted if an entire class must stay home and isolate due to a COVID-19 case. 

A Toronto District School Board planning document says to accommodate 15-student classes in elementary schools, 2,500 additional teachers would need to be hired at a cost of $249 million.

Vickita Bhatt, a Grade 7 teacher in Brampton, says it's been a struggle not being able to plan for the fall, while knowing if students do go back, her classroom won't be as interactive and teachers can't be as involved due to physical distancing.

Grade 7 teacher Vickita Bhatt says it's been difficult to plan for the fall without knowing how the government will reopen schools. (Supplied/Vickita Bhatt)

In an effort to stay safe, she plans on doing more outdoor learning, having all desks face the same way and avoiding the use of shared items among students. 

She'd like smaller class sizes, personal protective equipment (PPE) distributed and a backup plan if staff call in sick. Bhatt, who is the political action chair with Peel's chapter of the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario, wants to see enough government funding to make that happen.

"What I would like to see personally is an investment in those things so that we don't have to cross that bridge when we get there," Bhatt said.

Lecce has said the government's plan will include more resources and training for staff and that the reopening announcement couldn't have been sooner because COVID-19 case numbers have been changing. 

 The province has spent months consulting with school boards, teachers, parents, students, SickKids and other health experts to come up with a "very good plan," Ford said Monday.

"Our number one priority is to make sure that kids are back in the classroom and that they're in a safe environment," Ford said.

Jessica Lyons would like to see class sizes of 15 students before sending two of her three children back to elementary school this fall. (Susan Reid/CBC)

Jessica Lyons, a nurse and mother of three, says she hopes to send her kids back to school full-time, but would like to see the same protocols Bhatt is calling for before she would feel confident in doing so.

"What we're really, really concerned about, and watching closely is what those numbers are doing and how the government is able to actually implement effective measures," she said.

Lyons, who is also part of a parent group advocating against the government's previous cuts to education, says she doesn't know what she'll do if certain protocols aren't enacted, and paid for, by the government.

"This is the impossible scenario," she said.

"I don't want to be in a position to choose whether I can keep my job or send my kids to an unsafe learning environment. It feels like we're under a lot of duress." 

Kids less at risk, but data minimal

Both Hota and Tuite say although there is limited data on COVID-19 and children, because schools were closed early and so kids were taken out of the equation quickly, it appears their symptoms are less severe when they are infected.

"Right now, it looks as though kids are less of an issue in terms of starting transmission within families or within the community compared to other respiratory viruses," Hota said.

Ontario statistics show just 5.6 per cent of the province's COVID-19 cases are people under 19, although it's likely more people in that age group contracted the virus but didn't show any symptoms.

But Tuite says there's new data showing kids as young as 10 can be as susceptible to the virus as adults. She says it's important to keep in mind schools aren't just filled with kids — high-risk areas also include where staff would typically congregate like lunch areas and photocopier rooms.

Moreover, some research has also shown children over the age of 10 can spread COVID-19 as readily as adults.

As Ontario continues to move into Stage 3 and the population keeps mixing, Tuite says if people aren't careful and numbers don't decline, a safe return to school might not be an option.

"It's really important that we stay focused on keeping cases low over the next month or so."

About the Author

Angelina King is a reporter with CBC Toronto where she covers a wide range of stories. She has a particular interest in crime, legal and justice issues and human interest stories. She previously reported on national and international news. Angelina got her start in her home city of Saskatoon where she spent much of her time covering the courts. You can contact her at angelina.king@cbc.ca or @angelinaaking

With files from The Canadian Press

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