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ONTARIO: Families, experts question school reopening plans as COVID-19 cases remain high

The new year has brought increasing uncertainty for many families left on tenterhooks, wondering how they can be sure when it's safe to resume classes

TORONTO — COVID-19's winter surge has kept Kimberleigh Armstrong's three kids out of the classroom longer than anticipated, but she fears the risks of returning next week as scheduled.

Spiking cases and hospitalizations offer the Toronto mom little assurance the pandemic is under control, and she wonders if classmates and their families socialized over the holidays.

"It makes me nervous because I don't know where those kids were," says Armstrong, who'd prefer in-class instruction be delayed at least two weeks.

"Do I want my kids to go back after one week? Not necessarily. But on the other hand, I do, because I know for my son, especially, he has issues and he needs that socialization."

The new year has brought increasing uncertainty for many families left on tenterhooks, wondering how they can be sure when it's safe to resume classes.

Infectious disease experts point to myriad factors that could fuel back-to-school spread, including colder weather that will force more time spent indoors, unaddressed ventilation issues that aid airborne transmission, and a new COVID-19 variant that is more easily spread.

Occupational hygienist Kevin Hedges, who specializes in recognizing and controlling workplace hazards, says financial and mental health concerns must be weighed against lockdown strategies.

But if community transmission is high and containment measures such as adequate ventilation and public health precautions are not fully in place, he questions whether schools should reopen in coming weeks.

"The numbers are going up. So, when the numbers are going up, why would we think about reopening schools? It's as simple as that," Hedges says from Ottawa. 

Any reopening plan must include a commitment to a "bundle" of infection control measures to limit the chance of school outbreaks, agrees Dr. Ronald Cohn, president and CEO of The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto.

He says that includes proper ventilation, mandatory masking, physical distancing, cohorting, hand-washing and more robust testing. 

Cohn says the question of whether holiday gatherings have caused a spike in COVID-19 infections should be known by the end of the week, but that secondary infections spawned by holiday revelers may not be evident until after many schools reopen next week.

"We need a robust 'testing, tracing, isolate' strategy in place. While we need this for the entire province, we for sure need it for schools to open safely," says Cohn.

School children in the country's hardest-hit regions are out of the classroom at least until Monday, including many in Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec, as well as Nova Scotia.

Ontario is also under strict lockdown measures with hospitalizations reaching new highs, leaving some critics baffled as to why schools would open regardless. 

Education Minister Stephen Lecce said earlier this week there was no plan to delay Monday's return for students in northern Ontario and elementary students in southern Ontario, while southern Ontario high schoolers return Jan. 25.

As of Wednesday morning, Quebec students were also set to return to class Monday, when the province's "circuit-breaker" strategy was set to expire, but several infectious disease experts fear a reopening there is premature.

Generally speaking, infection control experts have urged in-class learning be prioritized for the youngest grades and children and teens requiring in-person special education, followed by kids in Grades 6 to 8, and finally those in Grades 9 to 12, since older children are known to transmit the virus at higher rates. 

Manitoba's staggered approach by age has put junior and high school students in remote learning until Jan. 18, and made remote learning optional for those in younger grades until Jan. 18.   

Emergency physician Kashif Pirzada says he'd like to see such flexible options made more widely available, noting many families are unsure about in-class instruction, while others cannot accommodate at-home learning.

"A good example is what Australia did, in which they did close schools but they kept them open for people who needed support, or for (children) of essential workers," says Prizada, in Toronto.

Most B.C. students returned Jan. 4 but many families there say that's too soon. More than 65,000 people have signed a petition demanding B.C. schools close for two weeks.

Petition author and Grade 12 student Luna Zalenti says she has chosen not to return to class this week, in part because she knows people have gathered over the winter break.

"I think everyone knows people who have done that," says the 17-year-old Victoria resident.

"Especially when you're young, you feel like you're immune to everything, you feel like you're invincible. And unfortunately that's not the truth."

Asymptomatic testing in schools would go a long way towards filling in knowledge gaps about the role kids and schools may play in community spread, says University of Manitoba virologist Jason Kindrachuk, reached in Saskatoon.

"We don't have that algorithm to say, 'OK, if you have this test positivity rate this is what the likelihood is for kids that are in schools and how to strategize closures or virtual learning,'" says Kindrachuk, on a one-year secondment to the University of Saskatchewan's Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization-International Vaccine Centre.

"Kids remain a massive question mark and there is no consensus within the scientific community."

Cohn agrees, adding a plea for targeted containment efforts in communities with especially high COVID-19 rates where vulnerable families may require extra support. 

Pirzada sympathizes with families unsure how to assess their own family's risk tolerance. If there's any doubt, he suggests erring on the side of caution. 

"If you can keep your kid home, you should keep them home the way things are going," says Pirzada, as fewer kids in school could limit virus spread. 

"Try to support members of the community who don't have the same options."  

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 6, 2021.

Cassandra Szklarski, The Canadian Press