Experts call for community sacrifices to keep schools safe from COVID-19

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Schools closed over fear of a pandemic wave after the holidays will reopen in many parts of the country on Monday, but experts say the protection of children will depend on tightened controls beyond the learning environment.
Thousands of students from Alberta, Quebec, Nova Scotia and Saskatchewan are among those ready to reunite after a long break, depending on their region and age group.

In some areas, returning to class coincides with more stringent precautions both inside and outside the classroom.

Grades 1 and 2 from Quebec will join older elementary students in having to wear masks on school buses and in common areas, while those in grades 5 and 6 will also be required to wear masks in class .

The biggest news in Quebec has been the introduction of Canada’s first COVID-19 curfew, which prevents most residents from leaving their homes between 8 p.m. and 5 a.m.

It’s a significant crackdown that should help protect schools from rising community rates that have pushed cases, hospitalizations and deaths to worrying levels, observers say.

“We need to start talking about other sacrifices that we communities are willing to make if we want our children to go back to school,” says Ashleigh Tuite, assistant professor at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto.

“I don’t like the idea of ​​curfews or restriction of movement, but again these are the types of actions that I think as adults we should be prepared to take if that means that. will help reduce community transmission. ”

Ontario was set to reopen elementary schools in the southern half of the province on Monday, but delayed the plan for two weeks due to the staggering number of cases and a worrying increase in positivity rates among children.

Ontario’s chief medical officer of health said last week that the positivity rate in children tested was approaching 20% ​​in early January for 12-13-year-olds, up sharply from 5% in late November and early December.

A survey of provincial COVID-19 test results broken down by age also found smaller but still significant peaks for other age groups, including a 16% jump from 5% for children 4 to 11 years and an increase to 14 years. percent of 6 percent for 14 to 17 year olds.

This goes hand in hand with the surge in infections which set a daily record of more than 4,200 reported cases on Friday, although that includes a backlog of around 450 cases.

Ontario has hinted that new restrictions are on the way and expressed a vague desire to introduce more school-based measures aimed at removing transmission rates, but no details have been released.

Asymptomatic school test required: virologist

Finding the right balance between community and school restrictions is an imprecise science, says University of Manitoba virologist Jason Kindrachuk, but he says anything to curb larger infections helps prevent the risk of outbreaks in the classroom. .

“We probably shouldn’t be talking about school closures if we aren’t also talking about closures of all non-essential businesses and also of offices,” says Kindrachuk of Saskatoon, where he works with the University of Saskatchewan on vaccines. and infectious diseases Organization-International Vaccine Center.

But it is also essential to have better data to assess how susceptible schoolchildren really are, he said, repeating calls for asymptomatic testing: “We do not yet fully understand what the disease looks like to this day. transmission in schools. ”

Provincial lockdowns have been extended in Alberta and Manitoba, while Saskatchewan said it plans to review the state of its Christmas limits on gatherings and retail capacity.

Children in British Columbia returned to public school after a two-week winter break last week, but there is also pressure to step up protections, including mask warrants and physical distancing.

Teachers in the Fraser Health Region are particularly concerned about “schools with inadequate, inconsistent or unsafe health and safety standards,” the BC Teachers’ Federation said in a statement Friday.

The federation calls on provincial authorities to reduce density in schools, improve ventilation, make masks mandatory in all indoor spaces and ensure that educators and school staff “receive appropriate priority” for vaccinations against COVID-19.

Kindrachuk says the arrival of a more infectious variant of COVID-19 from the UK further raises the challenges of infection control.

“Things don’t go from day to day all of a sudden the next day,” he says. “There’s a slow escalation and then it all starts to hit that exponential phase where you don’t go up linearly, now you’re actually going very, very rushing up. ”

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