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High school students at Marymount Academy International attend class in Montreal on Nov. 17, 2020. Quebec began reopening schools to in-person learning three weeks ago following an extended holiday break.

Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

Three weeks after the COVID-19 hot-spot provinces of Alberta and Quebec began reopening schools to in-person learning, cases continue to drop in both provinces. The question on every parent’s mind: Can it last?

Parents across most of the country are watching schools closely after they reopened in January after extended holiday breaks, amid a second wave that had only begun to subside. Southern Ontario was the one part of Canada where many schools have remained shuttered with online learning only. Schools in Ottawa will reopen Monday while the Toronto, Windsor and Hamilton areas wait until Feb. 10 for their earliest reopening.

The country is also on alert as virus variants that spread more readily are found, mainly in Ontario and Alberta so far. “The new variants could throw a wrench into all of the plans, including schools,” said Kirsten Fiest, an epidemiologist at the University of Calgary.

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School reopening in the pandemic is always controversial but it remains hotly contested in Quebec. On Friday, a Superior Court judge heard final arguments between the government and parents who went to court to demand an online learning option. In Canada, only Ontario offers a full-time online option for all primary and secondary students. Controversy has also persisted over the Quebec government’s refusal to install air purifiers in classrooms.

But in Quebec, hundreds of classroom closings to prevent potential spread has obscured the fact new daily cases for people under 20 have actually dropped from a peak seven-day average of 465 cases on Jan. 10 to about 300 this week.

In Alberta, the peak was in early December but has also followed a downward trajectory through three weeks of school. In both provinces, overall cases among all ages have dropped. Alberta decided late last week to start reopening the economy, including restaurants. Quebec is maintaining widespread closings and a curfew.

covid-19 cases in quebec and alberta

Seven-day moving average, as of Jan. 29

Alberta

0-9 years

10-19 years

Quebec

0-9 years

10-19 years

Nov. 30: Alberta Grades 7-12 go online

Dec. 17-18: Most Quebec and Alberta

schools closed

Jan. 11: Quebec primary and Alberta

schools reopen

Jan. 18: Quebec secondary schools reopen

350

300

250

200

150

100

50

0

Aug.

2020

Sept.

Oct.

Nov.

Dec.

Jan.

2021

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: institut national de santé publique du québec; government of alberta

covid-19 cases in quebec and alberta

Seven-day moving average, as of Jan. 29

Alberta

0-9 years

10-19 years

Quebec

0-9 years

10-19 years

350

Nov. 30: Alberta Grades

7-12 go online

Dec. 17-18: Most Quebec

and Alberta schools closed

300

Jan. 11: Quebec primary

and Alberta schools reopen

250

Jan. 18: Quebec secon-

dary schools reopen

200

150

100

50

0

Aug.

2020

Sept.

Oct.

Nov.

Dec.

Jan.

2021

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: institut national de santé publique du québec; government of alberta

covid-19 cases in quebec and alberta

Seven-day moving average, as of Jan. 29

Quebec

Alberta

0-9 years

10-19 years

0-9 years

10-19 years

350

Nov. 30: Alberta Grades 7-12 go online

300

Dec. 17-18: Most Quebec

and Alberta schools closed

Jan. 11: Quebec primary and

Alberta schools reopen

250

Jan. 18: Quebec secondary

schools reopen

200

150

100

50

0

Aug.

2020

Sept.

Oct.

Nov.

Dec.

Jan.

2021

THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: institut national de santé publique du québec;

government of alberta

Schools are under heightened attention for good reason, according to Dr. Fiest. In the fall, children went back to school amid very little community spread. Cases in schools and the wider community grew through the fall until hospitals were under such distress most provinces shut down services and activities and restricted social gatherings.

This time the community “burden of cases” is high, even though it is declining, and Dr. Fiest said she is pessimistic the trend will last.

“We still don’t have the contact tracing and testing needed. We don’t have a great sense of how the disease is distributed. We haven’t done enough to space older students apart. It’s winter,” she said. “There are legitimate solutions but we haven’t used them.”

How many coronavirus cases are there in Canada, by province, and worldwide? The latest maps and charts

When will Canada’s general vaccination for COVID-19 begin? The federal and provincial rollout plans so far

One worrisome sign in Quebec is the decline in daily new cases in the 0-9-year-old age groups appears to be levelling off while working-age groups continue to drop. Epidemiologists say decline in the 10-19-year-old group will likely stop dropping too given high-schoolers are more apt to spread the virus than younger children.

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In Quebec, everyone between the ages of 10 and 60 saw a large spike in cases during the 25-to-32-day Christmas school break while cases among younger children stayed relatively stable, before the drop began. Albertans had a much smaller, temporary rise in holiday cases overall before a downward trend resumed.

In Northern Ontario, public-health officials are conducting mass voluntary testing in three Sudbury schools after outbreaks. Quebec is also doing mass testing in some school hot spots, as well as serology testing for a study of 22 schools in four neighbourhoods to see how many people have had COVID-19.

The large number of COVID-19 infections in some places makes it more likely for new variants of the virus to emerge. Science Reporter Ivan Semeniuk explains how vaccines may not be as effective against these new strains, making it a race to control and track the spread of variants before they become a dangerous new outbreak. The Globe and Mail

Kate Zinszer, an epidemiologist at the school of public health at the University of Montreal who is working on the serology study, said such efforts are only a start toward filling a gaping data void that hampers limiting outbreaks.

“It’s so frustrating as a researcher to not have access to good data,” Dr. Zinszer said. “We’re just not responsive enough, not nuanced enough in our approach. We should be monitoring with rapid testing, saliva samples.”

Dr. Zinszer said schools should be monitored much more closely to protect teachers, students and their families, but also because of the community surveillance they could provide.

“Elementary schools in particular aren’t the hot spots we thought they would be, but obviously there are contacts in schools and the chance for transmission,” she said. “We still don’t really know their role in community transmission, and they could be such a good window into what’s happening in the community.”

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Both Dr. Zinszer and Dr. Fiest say opening schools is the right move even though return-to-school plans are not great.

“If schools stayed completely closed I don’t think they would change the trajectory that much without a widespread shutdown,” Dr. Fiest said. “But yet again we missed an opportunity to understand what’s happening and to keep students and teachers safer.”

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