Should schools be closed to combat COVID-19? Officials and experts unsure
TORONTO -- With the usual winter break approaching for schools, several provinces are looking at extending that break as a tool in the fight against the second wave of COVID-19.
But school closures are still a hotly debated topic, with officials and parents juggling economic concerns and the educational needs of students with health concerns.
“This is a very challenging situation to navigate,” Dr. Abdu Sharkawy, an infectious disease specialist, told CTV News Channel. “I think most of us would agree, in an ideal scenario, we want kids to stay in school as long as possible, as long as schools remain relatively safe.”
Quebec premier Francois Legault admitted last week that they were considering closing schools, and Manitoba’s premier Brian Pallister said in a press conference Tuesday that the province might consider an extension on Christmas break for schools.
After provincial officials hinted a day earlier that a similar idea was on the table for Ontario schools, Education Minister Stephen Lecce said in a statement Wednesday that there would be no extended winter break in Ontario.
“We have consulted with the chief medical officer of health as well as the Public Health Measures Table and have determined that an extended winter holiday is not necessary at this time, given Ontario’s strong safety protocols, low levels of transmission and safety within our schools,” Lecce said.
Ontario currently has a case positivity of 4.5 per cent and has been regularly breaking daily records for new case counts. More than 1,400 new cases were reported today.
As of Wednesday, three schools have closed in Ontario as a result of a COVID-19 outbreak, and 109 cases of COVID-19 have been reported in Ontario schools within the last 24 hours alone.
In the big picture, schools have not proven to be the super spreader events that many worried they could be. But questions still remain on the role that schools could play in transmission, and as restrictions on other public gathering spaces increase in hotspots across the country, some have questioned why schools are still open when the rest of the population is being urged to stay home.
“Schools I think are the unanswered question, and I think if we’re trying to be as precautious as possible in this type of situation, the likelihood is (it’s) an area that we have to think about implementing pretty strong roadblocks,” Dr. Jason Kindrachuk, a virologist at the University of Manitoba, told CTV News Winnipeg on Tuesday.
On Wednesday, Nunavut shuttered all of their schools as part of a territory-wide shutdown for two weeks to try and halt the rapid spread of COVID-19 after cases more than doubled overnight to 60 cases on Tuesday -- the first province or territory to close schools completely since the closures of the first wave.
Outside of Canada, one of the U.S.’s biggest school boards has reversed course on their fall reopening of schools, with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announcing Wednesday that they would be closing schools to help battle a rise in COVID-19 cases.
The move was criticized by some who pointed out that indoor restaurant dining was still permitted in the city and non-essential businesses hadn’t had to close.
“Schools should be the last things to close, not the first,” City Council member Brad Lander said in a statement.
In the absence of a complete societal lockdown across a region, there are many difficulties with closing schools, such as the burden on parents struggling to make a living.
“The implications of having schools shut down for extended periods of time are enormous, especially with respect to parents and caregivers who can’t remain gainfully employed and perhaps can’t have a stable income provided for themselves and their family if they have to stay home to look after their kids,” Sharkawy pointed out. “And so it’s a real ripple effect across the community.”
He said that if case numbers continue to rise in Canada, schools won’t be able to stay open for long in many regions.
“I don’t know if it’s realistic that we’re going to be able to keep our schools open throughout the winter, if the trends continue where they are right now,” he said.
“But if they are eventually closed and the winter break is extended, I think it’s going to have to happen in tandem with tangible financial support for small business owners and for anybody in the work force so that they are not hamstrung and compromised in their ability to care for their family, put food on the table and pay their rent by doing so.”
The need for government support is something education experts have been emphasizing as well.
Many education experts feel abandoned by provincial governments, claiming that closing schools before trying to improve safety within the schools themselves is a cop out.
Parti Quebecois education critic Veronique Hivon said last week that the Legault government had stood by instead of making schools safer, as the number of COVID-19 cases in schools more than doubled between Oct. 1 and Nov 11.
"What we are asking of the government is that, if it is serious in its desire to prioritize the opening of schools, if it wants to do everything to avoid the closure of schools, it is time to put all means in place on the ventilation side, on the half-class attendance side and on the screening prioritization side,” Hivon said last Friday.
It’s a viewpoint that Jennifer Brown, president of Elementary Teachers of Toronto, agrees with. Instead of an extended winter break, she wants to see more attention put into ensuring schools can be safe for children to physically attend.
“Being on a screen for five hours a day is not the best way to learn, and I’m concerned about the mental health of our students,” she told CTV News Channel. She would prefer “if the government would put in structures so that we can have smaller class sizes, so that we can have ventilation in schools, to make it a safe environment so parents feel confident about where their children are learning.”
With the combination of virtual and in-person learning that has been occurring in some regions, they’ve been able to have smaller classes, Brown said, making things slightly safer.
She said that while there’s no comprehensive statistics on how effective virtual learning is yet, “what we do know is that it is depressing,” adding that there is a “strain” for teachers and students.
“A longer winter break would be ideal for helping the province slow down the spread of COVID-19, but is it ideal for the students and for public education? That’s the real question,” Brown said. “I would like to suggest that it would be best that we focus on investing in our education system to make it so that students learn in an environment with others.”
If we had a better handle on just what role children and schools played in the transmission of COVID-19, the way forward might be clearer, experts say.
Michael Gardam, an infectious disease specialist with the Women’s College Hospital, said Tuesday that we have not been doing enough testing.
“I think that we really should be testing kids so that we actually know what we’re talking about, because right now, I don’t think we really do have a good understanding,” he said. “It doesn’t seem to be a problem, but […] if a number of those kids are actually asymptomatic and they are part of the reason why we’re seeing increasing numbers, we should know that.
“I think all of us would want to keep schools open until we absolutely could not do so […] but data is a really useful thing here, and I do find, a lot of the times, we’re partially flying blind.”
With files from the Associated Press