School re-openings have avoided 'catastrophe,' says Ontario doctor
In this file photo, students play in the schoolyard at an elementary school Monday, October 5, 2020 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
TORONTO -- Sending kids back to school in Ontario has not been the “catastrophe” that some predicted and has largely been done safely, says an infectious diseases specialist.
A number of recent international studies, along with COVID-19 case data, have also backed up the idea that re-opening schools has not fuelled the pandemic.
Dr. Michael Silverman, medical director of the infectious diseases care program at St. Joseph’s Hospital in London, Ont., says there have been instances of children and teachers contracting COVID-19 since schools opened about six weeks ago “but it's a small number. There have not been mass outbreaks,” he told CTV’s medical correspondent Avis Favaro.
“And for the vast majority of children and the vast majority of teachers, this has been a safe and effective intervention that has led to children restarting their education, which has led to long-term great benefits for all of us.”
According to the province, as of Oct. 21 a total of 1,569 COVID-19 cases have been reported in publicly funded schools since Sept. 5. That includes 144 new cases reported Wednesday and 823 in the last two weeks.
Out of a total of 4,828 schools, 516 (10.7 per cent) have at least one reported case, and four, (.08 per cent) are closed.
Quebec, Canada’s hardest-hit province, with more than 96,000 cases of the virus and more than 6,000 deaths, says as of Oct. 20, it has 2,194 active cases in its public and private schools. Another 3,279 staff and students have recovered and returned to school.
According to the province’s figures, a total of 1,337 schools, or about 45 per cent of the province’s total, have reported at least one case since the beginning of the school year. But just .36 per cent of Quebec’s 1.5 million students and staff have been infected.
Though Ontario’s virus caseload has sharply risen throughout September and October in what experts are describing as the second wave of the pandemic, there is no evidence that it’s connected to schools, says Silverman.
“The good news is that schools have opened, and we haven't had a catastrophe. And there was so much prediction that this is not going to be safe and we're going to have death mass deaths of teachers, and it's going to spur the epidemic. And although there's been small outbreaks in schools, they're small, they have not led to any catastrophe.”
But Silverman says he’s concerned about the levels of fear that continue to exist among teachers and parents.
“It's not good for public health for everybody to live in terror. And when….there's something good happening we should also make the point that something good because there was so much controversy about it.”
A group of doctors, academics and scientists, called Masks4Canada, has produced a crowd-sourced Canada COVID-19 School Case Tracker. It says there are a minimum of 225 cases at 161 schools in B.C., and at least 664 cases at 345 schools in Alberta.
Health officials in B.C. said earlier this month that school-aged children made up less than 10 per cent of COVID-19 cases after schools reopened, which was consistent with earlier stages of the pandemic.
The province announced its first school outbreak Wednesday after three positive tests at a school in Okanagan.
Two new international studies have found no consistent relationship between in-person elementary and secondary schooling and the spread of the novel coronavirus.
A study out of Spain concluded that school reopenings had no significant effect on overall case incidence and has not led to increases in pediatric cases of COVID-19. In some areas of Spain, once schools reopened, COVID-19 cases dropped. In others, trend lines stayed the same. But the researchers didn’t find anywhere where cases rose after kids went back to school.
The Catalan region in Spain indicated that in the first two weeks of opening, 87 per cent of primary cases in schools did not produce a secondary case and seven per cent infected one contact in their class.
A crowd-sourced dashboard covering close to 1,300 schools, almost 262,000 students and just over 78,000 staff in the U.S. reports that just three per cent of schools have more than five cases and 0.7 per cent have more than 10.
The daily case rate per 100,000 students has remained at 10 since mid-September, with 0.14 per cent of students as confirmed cases.
The dashboard also tracks how many schools are implementing mitigation measures, including mandatory masks for students and staff, daily at-home screening, physical distancing, and school bubbles.
Insights for Education, a Zurich-based foundation, found that data collected from 191 countries between Feb. 10 and Sept. 29 showed widespread reopenings of schools “has generally not been associated with rising COVID-19 infection rates.”
“It’s been assumed that opening schools will drive infections, and that closing schools will reduce transmission, but the reality is much more complex,” Insights for Education founder and CEO Dr. Randa Grob-Zakhary said in a press release.
“The key now is to learn from those countries that are reopening effectively against a backdrop of rising infections.”
A third study from Yale University released last week found no elevated risk to childcare workers who remained on the job in the first three months of the pandemic. It tracked 57,000 childcare workers, about half of whom continued to work and half stayed home. After accounting for demographic factors, it found no difference in rates of infection between the two groups.
That is fuelling renewed calls for more school reopening south of the border. In the pandemic-battered United States, half of the country’s 50 largest school systems are open, with 11 more planning a return to school, according to The Washington Post.
Pediatricians have been warning throughout the pandemic about the physical, mental and emotional toll that closed schools have on children.
The B.C. Centre for Disease Control released a report in September that concluded: “Access to school resources for nutrition, health, and social supports are critical for many families. BC families reported impaired learning, increased child stress, and decreased connection during COVID-19 school closures, while global data show increased loneliness and declining mental health, including anxiety and depression.”
The detrimental effects are felt most acutely by the most vulnerable, including children with health conditions and special learning needs, along with single-parent and low-income families, those with unstable employment and housing, and children that are subject to abuse or neglect.