© 2020 netia.ca
Schools opened in suburban Atlanta earlier this month accompanied by a
flurry of photos
of students standing cheek-to-jowl as they trudged through the hallways.
The image of dozens of people gathering tightly together in a confined space was the perfect illustration of what not to do during a pandemic.
“It caused me to roll my eyes like, didn’t you think about this?” said Raywat Deonandan, an epidemiologist and associate professor at the University of Ottawa. “But at the same time, you know, I understand it. This is all new and you make plans and there are going to be some gaps in the plan.”
The girl who took the photo estimated that about 10 per cent of her classmates were wearing masks and, before long, the school’s principal was notifying parents that six students and three staff members at the school had tested positive for COVID-19.
It is this scenario that school boards across Canada are working furiously to avoid. All the finely-tuned rules about mask-wearing and social distance are for nothing if the students leave class into a crowded hallway.
“I do want to stress, don’t let perfect be the enemy of good,” said Deonandan. “There’s going to be some situations where the kids cluster, but it’s important to have those procedures in place that at least attempt to effect some measure of distancing.”
School boards have been widely encouraged to use cohort strategies for children of all ages and those cohorts will be maintained throughout the day, even at lunchtime, recess and dismissal. Schools can use staggered start times and different entrances to avoid the nightmare scenario seen in Georgia.
Virtual frosh weeks and no-guest dorm policies: Campus life in the age of COVID-19
How professors and students across Canada are preparing for a university year like no other
Guidance from experts, like the SickKids Hospital in Toronto, suggests piling many imperfect measures on top of each other to minimize the risk of transmission. And as with just about every other activity during the pandemic, it also makes clear that it’s virtually impossible to completely eliminate all risk.
“One reason why we’ve been keen on masks is that they’re pretty feasible. They may not get us all the way, but they’re getting us in the right direction and each point in the right direction is really important,” said Doug Manuel, a senior scientist with the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute.
In Ottawa, the school board’s creative plan for high schoolers has mostly solved the problems created by lunch-time and breaks, but it has drawn criticism from parents and trustees who are worried that kids aren’t spending enough time at school.
The students will be divided into two groups that will alternate between two- and three-days weeks of in-class instruction. The students will be bused into school at 9 a.m. and then bused home at 11:30 a.m. to continue learning remotely.
The plan means that students will be at school for only five hours during the two-day week and 7.5 hours during the three-day week.
“One of the things we were struggling with was how we ensure the safety of our students and staff with transitions or breaks during the day,” said Brett Reynolds, associate director for Ottawa Carleton District School Board.
“Even with up to 50 per cent attending on any given day, that means in some of our high schools, 500 to 700 students could be in the halls at a common time and we really couldn’t think of a way to provide adequate supervision within our current collective agreements,” said Reynolds.
“Hundreds of kids streaming into a hallway or moving between classes, where you can’t have very tight supervision means it’s going to be really hard to minimize contact,” he said.
For younger children, experts have suggested that some of the physical distancing rules be relaxed.
According to suggestions from SickKids, elementary school children shouldn’t be required to wear masks and there will only be one-metre of distance between students in the classroom. Recess should be done in cohorts, and sections of the school playground can be dedicated to each group of children.
The SickKids recommendations also encourage sports activities and outdoor play as much as possible, as long as risk mitigation strategies are implemented. Close contact sports like rugby and wrestling should be delayed, though.
The plan released this week by the Toronto District School Board requires all kids in Grades 4 to 12 to wear masks in classrooms and hallways and encourages schools to use outdoor times, like recess, as a break from the masks.
Students will remain in the cohorts during recess and lunch time, which will likely be staggered for physical distancing.
The Toronto plan leaves recess and lunch decisions to be “locally developed” based on the guidance from public health and the specific situation in the school, like how many kids are attending and how much space is available.
Things will get a little more complicated during the winter, when students will have to decide between going outside for a break from their mask and staying warm indoors.
Some experts have suggested creative solutions, especially considering how difficult the colder winter months will be. For example, Boston doctors, floated the idea of swapping a summer break for a winter break and moving some of the instruction outside. In some European countries, parks have been commandeered and handed over to daycares and schools to allow the kids to gather outside.
Manuel suggested using empty buildings to house classrooms while many workers are still working from home.
“Almost daily I hear some new suggestions coming out either from the school board or from the community and I think we’re starting to get on the right track about being open-minded about ideas,” said Manuel.
• Email: [email protected] | Twitter: stuartxthomson