Coronavirus outbreaks inevitable if Ontario reopens schools

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As school boards across Ontario plan to reopen in September, parents are concerned about two things: Will my kids and I be safe and will my kids learn properly?In many large urban centers in Ontario, children may not be safe in classrooms in September. Among the returning cohort, there will almost certainly be asymptomatic carriers of COVID-19. The science is clear that asymptomatic children have unknowingly spread the virus to others in schools.

School children also infected their parents.

Otto Helve, specialist in pediatric infectious diseases, correctly observed: “Epidemics in schools are inevitable.”

New outbreaks despite security measures

Experience from around the world confirms Helve’s point of view. More than 20 countries reopened schools last spring, using various infection control strategies. But viral outbreaks have happened anyway; schools in China, Israel and South Korea have had to close again.

In Germany, the proportion of children under 19 who made up the group of new infections doubled within two months of schools reopening. Some countries have never closed schools. Viral epidemics have occurred.

A student tries on a new face mask to fight the coronavirus pandemic at a school in Cologne, Germany in May 2020 (AP Photo / Martin Meissner)
(Photo AP / Martin Meissner)

Canada’s experience is similar. An elementary school reopened in Trois-Rivières, Que., Had nine out of 11 students infected after one contracted the virus, despite the use of preventive measures. COVID-19 appeared in schools in British Columbia after it reopened in June. Similar outbreaks have occurred in child care centers outside of Toronto and Montreal.

The Ottawa School Board is proposing to reopen its 72 schools five days a week in September. Ottawa Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Vera Etches, supports the board. She recommended “start with five days of in-person school and work to make this as safe as possible through reasonable and achievable infection prevention and control measures…”.

Dangerous premise

Dr Etches’ analysis error begins with a dangerous premise – schools are due to reopen in September.

The first question should be whether schools can implement public health measures by September that will reduce the risk of a virus outbreak to acceptable proportions. The answer to this question in many Ontario municipalities is no.

The human, physical and financial resources required to contain the inevitable outbreaks are large, complex, contested and not in place. It takes time to plan, organize and implement. Time passed months ago.

Furniture sits in an empty hallway at a school in Brampton, Ont., July 23, 2020.
THE CANADIAN PRESS / Chris Young

Other Ontario school boards are considering hybrid solutions – bringing in half of their students on Mondays and Tuesdays, the other half on Thursdays and Fridays, and variations of that concept. This idea is not certain.

Asymptomatic carriers among returnees could pass the virus on to their classmates, whether half, a third or a quarter of the students participate.

Ontario school boards unfortunately failed to educate students online from March to June. Since the proposal does not contain any measures to improve the education children will receive online, the hybrid concept will only prolong this failure. It will also compromise face-to-face classrooms by removing 60% of the teaching they contain.

Reopen in January at the earliest

Ontario school boards are expected to plan to reopen schools in January or September 2021. They should begin renovating schools in accordance with safety protocols now. School boards should work with the federal and provincial governments to develop resources to test every child for the virus every day.

Several companies and university labs are developing easy-to-use diagnostic tests that could be used by schools, including a spit test that looks for traces of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. The federal and provincial governments are expected to organize, fund and expedite the delivery of these and other similar tests in schools in January or September 2021.

School boards should now invest heavily in distance education. Distance learning is a relatively new science that grew out of a revolution in educational theory and produced distinctive educational practices. It is interactive, student-centered, digital – quite different from the online replication of existing classroom practices, as it happened from March to June.

A young girl in a pink sweatshirt sits in front of a laptop and a larger computer screen displaying lessons.
Peyton Denette, 6, is working remotely from her home in Mississauga, Ont., In March 2020 with speech-language pathologist Olivia Chiu of Two Can Talk.
THE CANADIAN PRESS / Nathan Denette

Specialists to help teachers transform their courses into appropriate distance formats need to be hired, technology resources for universal and equal access need to be purchased, and people trained in their use. Educators and staff should be trained in distance learning techniques.

Teachers, students need support

All of this will take time, leadership and investment. Teachers cannot become distance education experts on their own. And students need help to adjust.

Distance education, done right, could enable children to learn. It does not replace the social experiences children have in schools or schools that support working parents.


Also read: Melbourne students to return to school remotely. Here’s what we learned last time around and how to improve it


Children should return to school when the virus is sufficiently contained in their community and their school is secure. By then – which will not be in September – school boards should focus on leadership and resources to make schools safe and enable superior distance learning.

Investments made now will pay off for years to come, as primary and secondary education transforms.

We have before us a challenge and an opportunity, both of monumental importance. We have tens of thousands of great teachers waiting to take on the challenge. Boards should empower them to seize the opportunity.

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