Better ventilation, fewer cellphones called for in federal back-to-school guidelines

Canada's federal public health agency released guidelines today to advise school administrators as they plan for the reopening of schools in September with the goal of mitigating the spread of coronavirus among students and staff. 

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Canada's federal public health agency on Friday released guidelines for slowing the spread of the coronavirus among students and staff when schools reopen in September. 

The guidelines for school administrators recommend that students over the age of 10 wear masks, that students and teachers stay two metres apart wherever possible, and that students and teachers be grouped together to reduce the number of people they come into close contact with.

Schools should also postpone or cancel large group activities like assemblies, team sports and field trips and move classes outside if weather permits, the guidelines say. Students should also be encouraged to leave personal belongings, like cellphones, either at home or in their lockers so that they're not shared among students, according to the document.

The guidelines also recommend schools improve their ventilation systems and open windows whenever possible to increase air flow.

Anyone showing symptoms of COVID-19 should be screened and prohibited from entering school buildings, the guidelines say, and schools should have a plan for what to do in the event of an outbreak.

The recommendations come after many provinces and territories have already released their back-to-school plans, with many parents and teachers raising concerns about whether those plans do enough to keep children and staff safe.

"Now that COVID-19 activity has been brought under manageable control … we must now establish a careful balance to keep the infection rate low while minimizing unintended health and social consequences," chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam said at a news conference in Ottawa on Friday.

"Young people — for their mental and physical health — we need to get them back to education as safely as possible."

Complement to provincial, territorial plans

The federal guidelines, which are not prescriptive, are meant to supplement those provided by provincial and territorial governments and local public health authorities. 

Deputy chief public health officer, Dr. Howard Njoo, speaking alongside Tam, emphasized that all schools should consider the local situation when deciding which guidelines to put into practice.

"In one community, if there are not very many cases, it might be possible to be more flexible, and mask-wearing might not need to be mandatory," Njoo said in French. "But in another community where there is more community spread, it might be more important to implement mandatory mask-wearing."

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Plans for how to safely send students back to school vary widely across the country.

In B.C., students will be sorted into learning groups to limit their interactions with others but won't be required to wear masks.

Ontario's plan will see elementary students and high schoolers in areas with low infection rates in class five days a week in standard class sizes. However, secondary students at boards that are higher risk will only attend class half the time. Masks will be required for students in grades four to 12.

Alberta will also require students of those ages to wear masks  but only while in hallways, common areas and while working closely with others.

Saskatchewan will send students back to class without reducing class sizes or requiring students to wear masks.

Most provinces say schools must allow parents the option to keep their children home and allow them to learn remotely.

Several provinces have faced criticism from parents and educators, particularly those that have chosen not to mandate smaller class sizes as part of their back-to-school plans. In many parts of the country, maintaining a physical distance of at least two metres won't be possible in classrooms with the same average number of students as before the pandemic.

The federal guidelines recognize that physical distancing is not always possible, especially among younger students. They include ideas like spacing out desks and play stations, installing Plexiglas barriers between students, and assessing whether a school's infrastructure can be enhanced to create more space.

Worrying rise

Tam said, while a lot remains unknown, early evidence indicates that young children generally experience mild symptoms if infected with the coronavirus. Only a small number of children have become seriously ill, she said.

She said it appears that children under age 10 are also less likely to transmit the virus to others than older children and adults.

Both said that they continue to monitor a worrying rise in cases among young adults between age 20 and 39. 

"If we want schools to reopen safely and people going back to increased attendance at universities, we have to right now keep the transmission down," said Tam. "Right now, it's manageable. We can detect cases but this virus, as I've said, is in our backyards so we can't let our guard down."

With files from The Canadian Press