Toronto

Back to school and your social bubble: Some worry it could mean a grandparent getting COVID-19

Many people across the GTA are debating whether to send their kids to school, especially if they have an elderly parent living with them. Experts say parents should monitor the situation in schools carefully before deciding whether children can see their grandparents.

Parents should consider separating kids and grandparents if outbreaks occur in schools, expert says

Parents worry that schools will expose families to hundreds of people and could endanger grandparents. (Halfpoint/Shutterstock)

It's been tough for Nariman Ansari playing both mom and teacher these past few months, and that's not changing come September.

She's decided to keep her son and daughter at home since her elderly father lives with her, and having her children at school would mean they would potentially be exposing the entire family to hundreds of different people, and possibly more chances to catch COVID-19. 

"My father is senior; he's had heart surgery," said Ansari. "I don't know how I would manage. My son is in high school. What is he supposed to do? Come home every day, take off his clothes at the door and shower?"

The decision was a tough one for her, especially since her eight-year-old daughter has been struggling not having that social interaction with classmates and teachers. 

"I can see the anxiety in her as well," said Ansari, who lives in Richmond Hill and is able to work from home. "In the past few months she's been crying for no reason … I wish I could do something else but the risk is too high."

Nariman Ansari isn't sending her son or daughter to school in September because she believes the class sizes are too big and that could expose her father to the novel coronavirus. (Submitted by Nariman Ansari)

Many parents across the Greater Toronto Area have been debating whether to send their kids to school, especially if they have an elderly parent living with them or rely on grandparents for child care. One Vaughan mother said she won't be turning to her father for babysitting until she sees how the novel coronavirus is behaving after schools reopen. 

Should kids stop seeing grandparents? Doctor says it depends

Figuring out how going back to school will affect everyone's social bubble and level of risk is the million-dollar question, says Dr. Michael Gardam, an infectious disease specialist at Women's College Hospital. 

"We've gotten very used to having small social bubbles and there's no doubt that school is going to open that up." He says younger kids and teenagers in school are not going to be as compliant with physical distancing measures. 

But should parents remove grandparents from their social circle? Dr. Gardam says it's an option.

"If I were in that situation I would more be thinking about, 'Okay, we're going to start out seeing them but we're going to monitor the situation closely,'" he said.

"If it looks like we're starting to hear cases of clusters in schools and transmission going on related to schools that might be the point where I start making decisions whether the grandparents are involved."

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The best tool we have to protect ourselves, says Gardam, is physical distancing.

"The one thing we know about how COVID-19 transmits, is it really requires close contact. If you and I are at opposite sides of the room the odds of me infecting you are basically zero."  

Erin Mizrahi and her husband are teachers and their kids go to two separate schools. She's worried her family will be exposed to many more people and many more chances to get infected. (Submitted by Erin Mizrahi)

Teacher Erin Mizrahi doesn't know if she'll be asking her parents to babysit either when she goes back to work in September.

Her family's social circle will potentially be exposed to thousands of people. She and her husband are both teachers at different schools and their daughters also attend two separate schools, meaning the family has four different possible points of exposure. 

"We talked about possibly teaching online from home, but with so many unknowns we thought it would cause us a lot of stress not knowing what we would be teaching from home and how we would do it," said Mizrahi. 

Specialists will be watching to see how much the virus spreads once schools open and social circles are affected. 

Research varies on how easily kids spread COVID-19

The good news, says Gardam, is when children catch the disease, it doesn't seem to affect them as severely as adults. But he says the literature is split on how easily kids spread COVID-19 to others. 

In a statement to CBC Toronto, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Health said "the ministry continually assesses and reviews its advice related to public health measures, including social circles."  People should continue to maintain a social circle no more than 10 people, the ministry added. 

When it comes to how schools will affect that number, the ministry said "all school boards will adopt timetabling methods that emphasize cohorting of students as much as possible, to limit the number of direct and indirect student-to-student contacts."

Still, both Ansari and Mizrahi say that they would feel safer if the government would allow for smaller class sizes. Ansari says she might send her children to school in November if transmission rates remain low.

About the Author

Natalie Nanowski

Reporter, CBC Toronto

Natalie is a storyteller who spent the last few years in Montreal covering everything from politics to corruption and student protests. Now that she’s back in her hometown of Toronto, she is eagerly rediscovering what makes this city tick, and has a personal interest in real estate and environmental journalism. When she’s not reporting you can find her at a yoga studio or exploring Queen St. Contact Natalie: natalie.nanowski@cbc.ca

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