When looking at what has happened in these countries, the most basic principle that emerges is that the best way to reduce the likelihood of spreading COVID-19 in schools is to have a low infection rate in the community.
With a low infection rate as a benchmark, prevention measures can be put in place in classrooms to further reduce the risk of transmission.
“A combination of keeping student groups small and in need of masks and some social distancing helps keep schools and communities safe,” says a recent article in the journal Science, which analyzed strategies used in various countries. .
The 72 Ontario school boards were asked to prepare three plans for September:
- Full-time classroom instruction with COVID-19 prevention measures in place.
- Full-time distance learning.
- A hybrid that sees half of the school population in class at a time while the other half learns online.
Education Minister Stephen Lecce stopped telling councils in June that he expects the school year to start with the hybrid model and now prefers children to be in class on time full.
Prime Minister Doug Ford has repeatedly stated that he wants to resume full-time studies in September. Senior officials from Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto and CHEO Children’s Hospital in Ottawa have asked the children to return to full-time class in the fall.
To make this happen safely, experts say Ontario should learn from measures used in other countries that have successfully limited the spread of COVID-19 in schools.
The adoption of the hospital model at several levels of infection prevention and control is recommended by a range of public health experts, including Amy Greer, epidemiologist and associate professor at the University of Guelph.
“The idea is to overlay these different strategies in a way that brings us to a situation where any potential spread could be quickly identified and contained, and minimize the risk of these outbreaks happening in the first place,” Greer said in a communicated. interview with CBC News.
“The first layer is just to keep it out of the school setting to the best of your ability,” said Greer. This involves daily screening, to ensure that children do not come to school sick.
The next layer includes steps to reduce the chances of transmission of infections by students and staff, which means physical distance, hand washing and potentially masks.
Finally, if transmission occurs, schools can minimize the spread by reducing the amount of interaction between the school population.
This translates into a concept called a cohort: separate students into small groups, maybe 15 or fewer, who spend the whole day in the same class with a teacher, have lunch and breaks together, and don’t mix with anyone. else in the school.
The cohort would work more easily with the way elementary students are taught than with high school students, who typically move around multiple classrooms, each with different groups of students and different teachers.
There is new evidence that adolescents have a greater tendency to spread COVID-19 than elementary students. In addition to the fact that it is much easier to teach teens online than it is to teach teens, Ontario could take a different approach to reducing risk in high schools.
The Toronto District School Board, the largest in the province, is considering a model that would see the secondary school year divided into “terms”, with students taking only two courses at a time during each nine-week session.
Each TDSB high school student would spend about half the day learning online, creating a physical distance by ensuring that no more than half of the student body was in the building at one time.
At the provincial level, Ontario has not yet adopted the specific prevention measures it wants school boards to take.
“This is an issue that is the subject of much discussion right now,” said Dr. David Williams, the province’s chief medical officer of health.
The province is examining how other jurisdictions have successfully prevented COVID-19 infections in schools, said Williams at a press conference on Thursday.
“We want to pay attention to those who understand what has worked, what have been the challenges or the problems they have faced”,
When asked what direction he gave to advice on security measures, such as setting up classrooms to ensure physical distance, Williams did not provide details. Rather, he asked questions.
“We want to review these public health measures [already being practised in the community]. How could we integrate this as part of the type of school to make it safe? “Said Williams.
“How would we manage if there were concerns or problems or the possibility of certain cases?” ” he added. “All of this is under discussion. ”
Whatever the prevention measures put in place by school boards for September, public health officials will have to closely monitor transmission in schools.
“The epidemic has manifested itself in different ways in different countries, which is why the solution we are creating for Ontario must be sensitive to how the epidemic happened in Ontario,” said Dr. Michael Warner, Medical Director of Critical Care at Michael Garron Hospital in Toronto.
“We need to make sure that we manage active infections very well in the community,” said Greer, epidemiologist at the University of Guelph.
“We must be able to find them quickly, we must be able to find and isolate them,” she added.
“This will reduce the risk of importing potentially infected students or staff into the school environment.”