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Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, seen here in Ottawa on Feb. 3, 2020, has also warned Canadians to prepare for the possibility that schools may need to close.BLAIR GABLE/Reuters

From stocking up on hand sanitizer and wipes to cancelling overseas trips, school boards are preparing for COVID-19 as public health officials warn of the potentially critical role schools will play in slowing the spread of the virus.

While research shows that children generally fare well if they are infected with coronavirus, they are also able to spread the illness to others. That means schools will become a focal point when the disease starts to spread more freely in Canada in the coming days or weeks, infectious disease experts say.

Children are “generally less compliant with effective hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette practices,” the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) wrote in its new guidelines for schools and child-care facilities to manage the risks of the virus. The guidelines ask schools to boost the availability of hand sanitizers, do away with perfect attendance awards, monitor students for signs of illness and restrict children from sharing food.

Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, has also warned Canadians to prepare for the possibility that schools may need to close. Japan has taken the step of closing its schools for about a month to help contain the spread of COVID-19, the name of the disease caused by the new coronavirus. But in Canada, such steps, which could also include the closure of workplaces and the cancellation of large gatherings, would only be taken if and when the disease starts spreading in local communities. Local transmission refers to the spread of the illness in people who are not linked to travel outside of Canada.

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The Toronto District School Board, Canada’s largest school district, said it would take direction from public health agencies if it were to close schools. The board is revising its pandemic planning document, which outlines the steps to take should public health declare the virus a pandemic in Canada. In the meantime, information is being sent to staff and families from Toronto Public Health, and caretakers have started “enhanced” cleaning of high-touch surfaces in schools, such as handrails and door knobs, spokesman Ryan Bird said.

“We are hearing from parents with concerns and questions when they hear about new cases in the news, or there are rumours that are going around the community. What we’re doing is providing as much as factual information as possible, and referring them to Toronto Public Health,” Mr. Bird said.

Several school boards across the country say teachers and other staff are reminding students about the importance of frequent hand washing, and coughing and sneezing into a tissue or their elbow. “[Winnipeg School Division] continues to promote good health practices to students through health education and reminders from classroom teachers,” said spokeswoman Radean Carter, adding that the risk is Manitoba is “still low" for the disease.

Catherine Shedden, a spokeswoman for the Trillium Lakelands District School Board in Lindsay, Ont., said the board is buying hand sanitizer for schools and has ordered wipes for teachers to have in classrooms. One high-school trip to France this month has been cancelled, and while other international trips do not leave until later in the spring, they may be cancelled as well, she said.

“We have significant concerns about the increasing spread of COVID-19 across the globe,” she said. “We recognize [trip cancellations] will be disappointing to students and families, but we are not prepared to risk illness for unnecessary travel.”

Research shows that about 80 per cent of people who get infected with COVID-19 experience mild symptoms. But some, including people older than 65 who have underlying health problems, are more likely to experience complications, which could include death.

Michael Gardam, chief of staff at Toronto’s Humber River Hospital and an infection-control expert, said Canadians should get used to the fact that this virus will likely be around for the foreseeable future. The next few months will likely bring inconvenience and disruption, but as time goes on, people will have to figure out how to adjust to the new normal, he said.

“This is really not a sprint, this is a marathon,” Dr. Gardam said. “Eventually, we’re going to have to figure out how we need to incorporate this into daily life.”

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