COVID-19 outbreaks in schools will be hard to avoid. Experts say creative solutions are needed to stop them
TORONTO -- Experts say outbreaks at schools may be impossible to avoid altogether, but teachers, governments and school boards can find creative ways to mitigate the risks amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
As families express concerns over the Ontario government’s back-to-school plans, experts are providing key recommendations to ensure things don't get out of hand once children head back to the classroom.
Dr. Anna Banerji, a paediatric infectious disease specialist, told CTV News Toronto on Wednesday that while she very anxious about the back-to-school plans as they stand, she believes things can be improved with some creativity before September comes around.
"I am concerned. There is a probability of outbreaks and no one knows what's going to happen. It would be a shame if this suddenly leads to a surge but I think hopefully we will be able to control it," the associate professor at the University of Toronto’s school of public health said.
"I think the province can do better to minimize or reduce the risk and I think municipalities and parents and teachers can start brainstorming and try to find out solutions so that you keep the kids more separate."
Keeping COVID-19 out
Banerji said that while the disease cannot be kept out of school with absolute certainty there are ways to try.
If proper social distancing is not followed and if children are not wearing masks, the worst case scenario could be that the disease spreads from one child to a whole classroom or school and then make its way to families and the community.
"The better scenario is the kid gets sick, maybe one or two people might get sick, but because of the masks and the distancing you don't have widespread of the infection."
She advises schools to perform daily symptom checks with the families of students to predict if a child has COVID-19.
Temperatures checks, she said, could also be used but should not be solely relied on.
"Temperature checks can be supplemental, but can also give a false sense of security,” she said. "Many, if not most cases of COVID, have no fever. I think symptom check from the family daily is a better predictor."
If symptoms are found, Banerji advises that families keep that child at home and away from vulnerable family members.
Wearing masks is vital to controlling spread
Experts have been stressing the importance of masks for children going back to school in order to prevent the potential spread of the disease.
The Ontario government's current school plan states that elementary school children in kindergarten through to Grade 8 will return to school five days a week and non-medical masks will be mandatory for students in Grade 4 to Grade 12.
Banerji stressed that wearing a mask is vital in stopping the spread of the disease at schools and advises masks for children of any age that could "tolerate" it to do so.
"I think all kids should wear masks if they are able to depending on the age. I think it can go younger," she said. "I think that we have to understand going into this that it is not without risk … but what we can do is reduce the risk."
Thinking outside the box
Concerns around ventilation in schools and the sizes of classrooms are real concerns that people need to be worried about, Banerji said.
"When you have a whole bunch of people close together in a small space that's when the virus spreads," she said. "We need to make sure that the ventilation is better and the kids are more spread out. That’s how you manage this."
She also advised that hand sanitizer stations need to be on site in every classroom and children should be kept far apart.
Those are the basics, she said, but there are also ways to make things safer by thinking outside the box and getting creative and considering the use of empty auditoriums, gyms, areas and skating rinks in community centres.
"There are a lot of places, especially now, that are not being used because of COVID, so maybe it’s time to use that community centre. Communities and municipalities need to start thinking outside the box on where we could put the kids where it safer and have them more spread out," Banerji said.
"That's what they need to be doing now and not just wait for the province to say this is what has to be done ... We shouldn't feel that we are stuck in the same old just because that’s the way we’ve done things."
Keeping vulnerable be safe
In case there are outbreaks at the start of the school year, Banerji advises families to keep vulnerable people "out of the mix."
"We need to cocoon them while all of this is going on so that the vulnerable people are not exposed to the virus," she said.
What happens when a student or staff member contracts COVID-19?
According to the government's back-to-school plan, any student or staff member who develop COVID-19 symptoms will be immediately separated from others.
Staff and parents will then be contacted by their health provider and be informed about COVID-19 testing centres.
People who test positive for COVID-19 will not be allowed to return to school until they are cleared by public health. Anyone who tests negative can return to school once they are symptom-free for 24 hours.
Schools will be required to immediately report any suspected or confirmed cases of COVID-19.