The Current

Epidemiologists call for mandatory COVID-19 testing in schools amid rising case counts

Reopening schools for in-person learning in parts of Canada where COVID-19 cases are on the rise would be like “adding fuel to the fire,” says a Toronto-based infectious disease expert.

Ontario extends some virtual learning, while B.C. students already back in class

On Thursday, the Ontario government announced it would extend virtual learning for some students in the province as COVID-19 case counts reached a record high.

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Reopening schools for in-person learning in parts of Canada where COVID-19 cases are on the rise would be like "adding fuel to the fire," says a Toronto-based infectious disease expert.

"We're at a point … in Ontario, where we have, you know, increasing hospitalizations, our ICUs are starting to fill up, and we're begging people to do everything they can to limit their social contacts," Ashleigh Tuite, an epidemiologist and mathematical modeller at the University of Toronto, told The Current's Matt Galloway. 

"And then we're opening schools, where we have large numbers of people aggregating in spaces that are not as safe as they could or should be."

Some students in Ontario — where COVID-19 case numbers are at an all-time high — were previously slated to resume in-person learning on Jan. 11. But on Thursday the provincial government pivoted on that decision, announcing that it is extending virtual learning for elementary students in the southern part of the province until Jan. 25.

Nova Scotia, Alberta, Manitoba, Quebec and parts of Saskatchewan have also delayed the return to in-person classes.

Meanwhile, B.C. schools reopened Monday amid concerns from some parents that there should be more precautions in place to protect against the spread of COVID-19. 

B.C. Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry said on Dec. 31 that there was no need to delay the return to class, and that experts were working on ensuring students' safety.

Infectious disease epidemiologist Ashleigh Tuite says schools can be COVID-19 'amplifiers.' (Nick Iwanyshyn/University of Toronto)

But Tuite warns that schools can act as "amplifiers" for COVID-19 because "communities are connected to schools."

When transmission happens there, and students and staff bring the virus home to their households, it increases the potential for COVID-19 to spread among the wider public, she explained.

Concerns about transmission in B.C. schools

Jennifer Heighton, a Grade 4 and 5 teacher in Burnaby, B.C., said she is happy to see her students face-to-face in the classroom again. However, she worries about ventilation issues and the province's piecemeal rules around mask-wearing in schools.

The B.C. government requires middle and secondary school students to wear masks in high-traffic areas of schools, such as on buses or in hallway. However, students can choose whether or not they want to wear a mask in classrooms. The government does not require elementary school students to wear masks at any time.

Heighton said she has been able to get 100 per cent of her students to wear masks in class, but that's not the case everywhere.

Tuite said it's a mistake for B.C. not to mandate masks in schools.

"The fact that you're relying on individual teachers to effectively act, as you know, advocates for masking when that's an intervention that we know works is really, at this point in the pandemic, really unforgivable," she said. 

Jennifer Heighton, who teaches elementary school students in B.C., says she has concerns about ventilation in schools, and the use of masks. (Submitted by Jennifer Heighton)

In December, Dr. Henry, said the data shows COVID-19 transmission from schools is low, and that they remain "very safe" places to be during the pandemic. At the time, she said school-aged children represented about 12 per cent of B.C.'s COVID-19 caseload, and that the figure had remained relatively constant since the beginning of the pandemic.

But Heighton said she sees the recent detection of nearly 50 COVID-19 cases at a Surrey, B.C., high school as cause for concern, particularly because local health officials don't consider the cases an outbreak.

"There's a lot of concern about potential school transmission going on, even though it's not being acknowledged by our [provincial] health office," Heighton said.

Schools could use saliva tests, says expert

Colin Furness, an epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of Toronto, said if schools are to open in the coming weeks, there must be mandatory COVID-19 testing for students. Schools could even use saliva tests, rather than nose swabs, he added.

Furness added that he trusts public health officials who say their data shows COVID-19 transmission in schools is low. However, he added that he hasn't seen that data himself.

"We're here talking about, gee, is there transmission going on in schools? It's sad that we've had four months of school and we still don't know," he said. 

"We should have been doing testing — and a lot of it — and we should be doing that now." 

Colin Furness is an epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of Toronto. (Evan Mitsui/CBC News)

The rise of a new variant of COVID-19 in the U.K. only adds to the importance of getting the virus's spread under control in Canada, Tuite added. And that means investing in schools to bolster safety and control measures.

"If we allow ongoing spread to happen, we can expect that once this variant is circulating in our communities, that it will potentially become the dominant lineage and we'll be dealing with a much-harder-to-control pandemic," she said. 

"We need to be looking for COVID in schools."


Written by Kirsten Fenn. Produced by Idella Sturino and Lindsay Rempel.

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