By Mary Spring
There is a great deal of confusion regarding COVID-19, but none more complex in my eyes than the closure of schools.
Schools are provincial issues. Depending on where you live in Canada, your child is either at school or completing academic work online. In BC, Alberta and Quebec, children returned to school after Christmas. In Southern Ontario, students began another month of online learning. This includes students in our area, as Muskoka is part of the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit. Interestingly, students in the North Bay Parry Sound District Health Unit catchment area are at school again. This is so hard on the children, not to mention their working parents.
Also confusing is how different provinces share their COVID-19 information. In late December, BC’s provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry stated that there was very little transmission in schools. Masks are not required for younger children in the BC schools. In early December, Ontario’s chief medical officer of health stated that there was very little transmission in a school setting. By early January, however, positivity rates in children had risen from 5.44 per cent to 20 per cent. This is alarming, but I am not sure that we really understand these numbers.
Dr. Jeffrey Pernica is an associate professor in the Department of Pediatrics and head of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Disease at McMaster University in Hamilton. Dr Pernica’s interests relate to the diagnosis of respiratory and enteric infections in children. When interviewed on CBC Radio’s Cross Country Check-Up recently, Dr. Pernica shed light on the transmission of COVID-19 in schools and the decisions to close schools down.
Dr. Pernica admitted that we do not know a lot about the transmission of COVID-19 amongst children. We do know that it is less likely that children and teenagers transmit the virus than adults do. Young children transmit less, but data, he believes, is lacking. COVID-19 is still being studied and there are not clear-cut answers as to whether schools cause higher rates of transmission. Yes, COVID-19 can be transmitted. However, when asked whether there will be more spread of COVID-19 if children are at school or if they are at home, his answer was no. When asked whether it was worth keeping schools closed, his answer was a very firm no. He believes that schools need to stay open, as in-school learning is a better choice for the future health of our children.
According to Dr. Pernica, the goal is to make safe choices that lead to the optimal health of our children. Schools provide not only the academics but also the social and emotional well being of the child. School allows for physical exercise and in many cases, proper nutrition. Schools can be a safe space for children, especially those who are living in difficult home environments. Schools, he believes, help to make our children the best people that they can be. For that reason, Dr. Pernica believes that it is very possible to make schools safe. Older schools with poor ventilation systems are a problem and that cannot be solved in the short term. As well, it is hard when children live in multigenerational families. The province, he believes, needs to use a systematic approach to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in schools. All adults who work in a school setting should be vaccinated as essential workers, as the risk of an education worker getting the virus is much more likely than a child. As well, the government needs to target more fragile family members for immunization. Physical distancing and numerous sanitation stations throughout the school are important. Masks must be mandatory for all children and staff. Schools should keep cohorts together, using other available space if possible. This space could include community centres which are closed due to the pandemic.
Dr. Pernica believes that a paid sick leave for parents is crucial, as inadequate paid sick leave helps to increase the spread of this disease. Such help will empower parents not to go to work if they or their child is sick. These actions will make the school environment as protective as possible.
Ontario parents should be given an opportunity to make the safest choice possible for their family. Online learning should be an option. If online learning is not a viable option, as in many rural communities in Ontario, or if a child has special needs, they must have the opportunity for in-school learning. The decision must lead to the optimal health of children, now and in the future.
Don’t miss out on Doppler!
Sign up here to receive our email digest with links to our most recent stories.
Local news in your inbox three times per week!