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What happens if a case of coronavirus emerges at a Canadian school?

No cases of the coronavirus have yet emerged in elementary or secondary schools in Canada, but it's certainly possible that a student or teacher could become infected. CBC News looks at the ramifications if a case of COVID-19 materializes in a Canadian school.  

Virus transmission in the school setting could be 'amplified' by lack of proper hygiene practices

Schools in Canada are not yet facing widespread closures due to coronavirus, but they are preparing for the possibility. Some experts say closures would potentially have economic and social impacts. (Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press)

In Canada, no cases of the coronavirus have yet emerged in elementary or secondary schools, but the virus has still impacted the lives of students.

A number of school boards have cancelled class trips abroad and it's certainly possible that a student, or teacher, could become infected at some point during this crisis.

Virus transmission in the school setting "is amplified" because young students are generally less compliant with effective hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette practices, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada's website.

Also, they socialize with each other in a way that is likely to increase transmission, the website said. 

CBC News looks at the ramifications if  a case of the novel coronavirus materializes in a school.  

How have other jurisdictions internationally reacted to the virus with regards to schools?

A  recent report by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) said that schools have been closed in 13 countries to contain the spread of COVID-19, affecting more than 290 million students around the world.

"While temporary school closures as a result of health and other crises are not new unfortunately, the global scale and speed of the current educational disruption is unparalleled and, if prolonged, could threaten the right to education," UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay said in a statement.

What about Canada? 

There is no widespread transmission of the disease in Canada, so PHAC has not recommended the closures of Canadian schools.

Students arrived at the West Pender campus of University Canada West last week to find the doors locked. A notice explained that the building was being sanitized. A media release on its website said the move was a 'proactive, precautionary' measure after the school learned a student had a presumptive case of the disease caused by a novel coronavirus. (Ken Leedham/CBC News)

A presumptive case of COVID-19 did prompt the closure of a business school in downtown Vancouver for at least three days while the building is disinfected, the school said Thursday.

And students from Sussex Regional High School in New Brunswick, who visited Italy this week, have been ordered to avoid returning to school for two weeks after their scheduled return home Saturday.

What's likely to happen if a case emerges in a Canadian school?

At the very least, all students in class of an affected student or teacher would be self-quarantined at their homes, said Colin Furness, an assistant professor with the University of Toronto's Faculty of Information.

However, it's also possible that the whole school would be closed and all students and staff tested, said Stephen Hoption Cann, a professor at the University of B.C.'s School of Population & Public Health.

"Any environment where there is a high density of individuals is conducive to the spread of the virus," he said.

Who would make the call to close the school?

The decision to close an entire school would likely be a co-ordinated effort with local and provincial officials, school boards and health officials, Furness said.

What kind of problems can school closures lead to?

While closing a school would certainly interfere with students' education, it would also have social and economic impacts.

PHAC acknowledged that a school closure would lead to significant consequences for certain groups, such as single parents and caregivers, children who participate in school-based nutrition programs, families who cannot afford increased child care costs, and parents without flexible work arrangements or paid leave benefits.

Could classes continue?

Remote learning is always a possibility. In Miami-Dade County, Fla., for example,  the district has provided laptops, tablets and smartphones for some students to take home in preparation for any potential outbreak. It is also providing internet connectivity for some low-income students, the New York Times reported.

The University of Toronto and the University of British Columbia are developing contingency plans to hold lectures via video conference and administer exams remotely, the Globe and Mail reported.

Still, organizing the teaching of classes in elementary and secondary schools could be a challenge.

Is closing a school a good way to contain the virus?

In Japan, schools have been shut down nationwide. But some experts are questioning the effectiveness of this strategy to contain the spread of coronavirus.

"As the largest groups of people the disease affects are in their 50s or 60s, closing elementary, middle and high schools doesn't make much sense from a public health perspective," Reiko Saito, a professor at Niigata University's Graduate School of Medical and Dental Sciences, said in an email to the Japan Times.

report by the Centre for Global Development said that a review of 79 papers on school closures during influenza pandemics shows that there is no consistent effect of closing schools as a strategy to contain epidemics. 

The CGD also said that if schools are closed, contact between children outside of school needs to be limited too. Otherwise, the benefits of school closure will be greatly reduced.

How long should a school be closed?

In 2012, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh looked at data from the 2009 H1N1 outbreak and its transmission to try to figure out the best amount of time for schools to close in the case of an outbreak. 

A pedestrian wears a protective mask as she walks in the winter weather downtown in Toronto on Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020. One expert says if schools are closed because of coronavirus, it's imperative that young students do not socialize in other settings face to face. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

"What we found was the optimal timing is eight weeks from a disease transmission" standpoint, Tina Batra Hershey, an assistant professor in Pitt's graduate school of public health, recently told the Baltimore Sun.

Opening schools too soon might leave students vulnerable to infection. But the same model might not follow for this outbreak, she told the Sun, and it should be left to local school systems to decide.

Would it ever make sense to close all schools across the country?

Furness said he believes that would be "wildly inappropriate," in part because of the economic cost.

"I think you need to do it locally where it's emerging," he said.

"I think if there is a case in Scarborough, I would close schools in that area, in that neighbourhood, in that region. I don't even think I would do that. I wouldn't do the whole [Greater Toronto Area.]

"I would wait for a second case and then see where it's spreading."