Cross Country Checkup

Catching COVID-19 in class and vaccine passports: Students' back-to-school questions answered

As students gear up to return to in-person learning this week, questions about the safety of schools are emerging in the midst of the delta-driven fourth wave. Pediatric infectious diseases expert Dr. Fatima Kakkar weighs in.

Dr. Fatima Kakkar says the benefits of students being in school outweigh the risks of COVID

Students line up before attending class on the first day of school in Montreal on Tuesday. Across the country, students will be heading back to class this week. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

If proof of vaccination is required to visit a movie theatre, why aren't they needed at university lecture halls?

That's the question international relations major Eshana Banghu has on her mind as she prepares to begin her third year of university in Vancouver. Banghu is vice president of academic and university affairs at the University of British Columbia's student society. 

Dr. Fatima Kakkar, a pediatric infectious diseases specialist at the University of Montreal, says the decision likely comes down to access to education, and that unvaccinated students could be disadvantaged if required to learn remotely.

"Universities and CEGEPs are considered essential, whereas movie theatres, restaurants are considered non-essential," she told Cross Country Checkup.

"I think we do have better measures in place for safety," said Banghu, pointing to her school's requirement that staff and students wear a mask and declare their vaccination status or face regular testing. Still, she would like to see more be done to protect those on campus.

Eshana Banghu is an international relations major and vice president of academic and university affairs at the University of British Columbia's student society. (Submitted by Eshana Banghu)

Many universities in Canada have made vaccination, or regular rapid testing, a requirement for studying on campus this fall, a move Kakkar supports.

As students gear up to return to in-person learning this week questions like Banghu's about the safety of schools are emerging in the midst of the delta-driven fourth wave.

When it comes to children, Kakkar says that the benefits of students being in school outweigh the risks of COVID-19.

"We want to make sure that kids are in school as much as they can be," she said.

Risk of serious illness low in younger Canadians: Kakkar

Soon-to-be eighth grade student Stephanie Ezri, 13, is looking forward to returning to the classroom this week. Online learning, she says, didn't work for her.

"Sitting at a computer all day — eight hours — I just got so fatigued from it," she said. 

"The work wasn't the same as well, and nobody except me and maybe a couple other students would really participate in class."

Stephanie Ezri, 13, will begin Grade 8 in Toronto. (Submitted by Stephanie Ezri)

And while Ezri is double vaccinated against COVID-19, she says she still has worries about how the pandemic will affect her peers' mental health if schools are closed again and whether she could still catch the coronavirus from unvaccinated classmates.

Kakkar says it's unlikely that schools as a whole will close like they did earlier in the pandemic.

"There might be brief worst-case scenarios. There might be brief interruptions from … time to time, but there won't be a widespread interruption of school, especially now that the adults are vaccinated because really the idea of stopping schools and closing them was more to prevent, to stop community transmission," Kakkar said.

Kakkar says that even with the delta variant, most kids do not experience severe illness and that they remain asymptomatic. 

She notes that in adults, it's believed that 20 percent of vaccinated individuals could experience a breakthrough infection — and for younger people, that likelihood is lower thanks to a robust immune response.

"I'd really reassure this 13-year-old that even in the worst-case scenario, if they caught COVID, there's a strong likelihood that they're going to be fine from COVID," she said.

Classrooms with positive cases

Calgary teenager Josh Hart has missed the social interaction that in-person learning provides. The 17-year-old says he's heavily involved in extracurricular activities, including debate and Model UN.

While he's excited to get back into the classroom, he's disappointed by his school's mandatory mask requirement. "Wearing a mask for almost six hours every day is just a lot," he said.

Still, he's encouraged by what he sees as positive policy steps forward, including a new rule that will allow classes to remain in-person even after a student tests positive for COVID-19.

Josh Hart is a Grade 12 student in Calgary and says he looks forward to getting back into the classroom and restarting extracurricular activities. (Submitted by Josh Hart)

Calgary Board of Education schools will no longer notify parents of positive cases, and parents are not required to disclose positive cases to the school.

Kakkar says in cases where a classmate is infected with the coronavirus, the risk to vaccinated students remains low but adds "it's an issue," especially among unvaccinated students where cases could be asymptomatic.

"It is concerning that they have this policy in place, particularly for the elementary schools," she said.

Knowing when a student tests positive is key from a public health and contact tracing perspective, Kakkar said.

"I think it's very concerning and it sort of goes against what we're doing in other provinces, so I would be concerned for the unvaccinated," she said.

Written by Jason Vermes with files from Alejandrina Alvarez and Steve Howard.

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