TORONTO -- Early observations from a study that looked at a simulated school day have revealed that children faced challenges in storing their masks and keeping a two-metre distance in classes that had more than 15 students. 

In mid-August, the Toronto Hospital for Sick Children conducted a two-day school simulation involving more than 190 children and 15 teachers to see how COVID-19 recommendations (mask-wearing, physical distancing, hand hygiene) would work in a school setting. The simulation included students of all ages and included in-class learning sessions, lunch and recess.

While the full results of the study are not yet available, researchers at the hospital released Monday their “initial observations” which show the children were crowded at school entry points, even with staggered entry, and were uncertain where to put their masks during recess, which led to some masks becoming dirty and needing replacement.

The observations also note that it was impossible to maintain a two-metre distance between students unless classrooms were limited to just 12 to 15 students.

“As the return to school has already started, teachers across the province are likely learning, or have already learned, the same observations we made,” Dr. Clyde Matava, co-principal investigator of the study, said in a news release. “We hope the wide release of these initial findings will foster conversations between stakeholders to share invaluable knowledge about school safety that can only be gleaned from real-world settings.”

When it came to the end of the school day, the initial observations note that parents who wanted to talk with teachers in the simulation often did not wear a maskas they picked up their children outside. This forced the parents and teachers to remain at a distance and made communication challenging.

The report also lists several considerations for teachers and schools to make an easier transition into class, including using all available doors for school entry, especially if school administration requires screening at the door and for masks to be stored in clean, marked plastic bag during recess.

The observations also note that staff should limit the amount of time spent in the building as much as possible, meaning leaving immediately after school and going off-site during lunch hours if not supervising the students.

“As the school year progresses, sharing key learnings and best practices from simulations or real-world experiences could help enhance everyone’s safety measures,” said Dr. Michelle Science, co-principal investigator of the study. “Having the flexibility to adjust these safety measures will strengthen our collective response to COVID-19.”

In June, the hospital released a comprehensive guideline for schools to reopen, which included recommendations for screening before students enter the school and an emphasis on hand hygiene, while not recommending the use of face masks.

While these latest observations were not released in a peer-reviewed journal, the researchers plan to have the full report peer reviewed and published in such a publication. These observations were instead meant to serve as “helpful considerations” for schools.