We wrote this week about how the decision to reopen public schools this fall, during the COVID-19 pandemic, is the right one.
This is based on several factors: the current low rate of community transmission across the country; the fact the disease is almost never life-threatening to people under 20; and the worrisome evidence that keeping kids out of school is harmful to their health and welfare.
But once schools reopen and millions of Canadian children are back at their desks, no factor will be more important than the evidence the spread of COVID-19 can be prevented if precautions are diligently enforced.
One major precaution will be the daily screening of students. Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, in its recent Guidance for School Reopening, says taking students’ temperatures isn’t necessary, because fever isn’t a consistent symptom in youths, and doing so would cause students to needlessly congregate in lineups.
A more workable approach may be for parents to assess their children each day at home, based on a standard checklist provided by public-health authorities, and then to have school staff verbally reconfirm with each student that the assessment was done.
Once in school, physical distancing will be critical, but the SickKids report points out that it is not an all-or-nothing proposition. Keeping students two metres apart is recommended in ideal situations, but it’s not as though breaching that barrier will result in the automatic transmission of the disease, or that there is no value in a one-metre barrier.
It may be more important to divide students into fixed groups that never mingle with each other, as most provinces are planning. “Cohorting” means an outbreak would be confined to a single class or group, and more easily traced and contained. It also lets the youngest students play safely with each other, without distancing.
As for class size, some parents in Ontario are calling for a cap in elementary classrooms of 15 students. That will be the class limit in Ontario high schools, made possible by students doing half-days, with the rest of their courses online.
But elementary students will be in school all day, and 15 is not a magic number that guarantees their safety. Common sense should prevail. If a room is too small to keep 20 or so students safely distanced, then the number of students should be reduced, or a bigger room should be found.
Governments must be prepared to make that happen, but first they need to know how many students will be in school this year. In Ontario, where parents have the option of keeping their kids at home, the Toronto District School Board says it won’t know what its enrolment will be until registration is completed later this month.
Then there is the question of masks. As SickKids says, ”Current evidence does not provide clarity on the optimal approach.” The age of students and the rate of transmission in the general population are just two of a number of factors that should determine mask use, the report says.
The Public Health Agency of Canada says students aged 10 and up should wear masks full-time. Ontario and Alberta say students should start wearing them in Grade 4, when the average student is nine. Quebec will enforce them for Grade 5 and up, but only in hallways and schoolyards. In Saskatchewan, no masks will be mandated, and British Columbia will only require them when physical distancing is impossible, such as on a school bus.
This inconsistency may be frustrating for parents, but none of these variations is offside with the basic guidance coming from public-health officials. The important thing is that school boards be willing to change direction if need be.
Other measures include good hand-washing practices, daily cleaning of surfaces, and proper ventilation. Governments need to be prepared to spend money on the latter, as many schools are older and don’t have good air circulation.
Above all, the provinces must have a ready supply of COVID-19 tests, and the capacity to provide same-day results, so that authorities can quickly trace and contain a school outbreak. As well, school boards must have clear protocols for reporting suspected or confirmed cases.
Parents are going to be watching closely. Every bit of alarming news will be a cause for anxiety and anger. Our governments have promised that the return to school is safe. Now they have to deliver.
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