Behind the scenes, there has been an enormous amount of work done to prepare for the safe return of students to schools.
The work continues, with school openings staggered to allow for a gradual re-entry with time enough for everyone to learn the new rules of engagement and public health safety measures. It’s not surprising that in the midst of all this activity, many families are asking if it is safe for students to return to school.
The most important factor determining the risk for students and staff returning to school is the status of the COVID outbreak in the community. For people living and working in Peterborough, our most recent weekly incidence rate of 0.7 cases per 100,000 people should be reassuring to parents and staff alike. If ever we allow schools to reopen during this pandemic that could linger for years, this would be a good time. Some families are making the choice to keep their children home and fortunately there are choices and options, which should help ensure that all students get matched with their best learning environment.
However, more than ever, the adage of “It takes a village to raise a child” applies. We all will play a role in keeping our children safe. We must all practice physical distancing when not within our social circles and existing social circles may need to shrink or change once students and/or parents are back in the school environment. Data from schools in other jurisdictions indicate that it is the adults and not the children that pose the greatest risk of transmission of the SARS CoV2 virus. England posted its experience in schools in the month of June, after they reopened. There were few cases, outbreaks were relatively uncommon and most cases were in adults. This aligns with our Ontario experience with childcare centres and day camps operating to date. Daily self-assessments and staying home when ill have proven to be important protective measures. We’ve had relatively few outbreaks. And as in England, adults were more likely to become ill than children.
The epidemiology of COVID-19 in Ontario shows us that although 21% of our population is children (age 0 to 19 years), only 5% of the COVID cases have been in that age group. Here in Peterborough, we have had only 5 cases in people under 20 years, and the majority were in youth and not young children. For local children, their greatest risk has come from being household contacts of people who travelled and then became ill.
Despite the focus on whether or not students should wear face coverings to school, an action for which there is limited supporting evidence, it will be the other public health measures such as the handwashing and cleaning, the physical distancing measures and cohorting of children, the daily self-assessment and absence of sick or self-isolating individuals that will probably have the greatest impact.
Adults in schools will need to wear personal protective equipment like medical masks and eye protection. This will be consistent with health and safety practices elsewhere. A recently published study showed that the addition of face shields to masks increased the protection for adults exposed in community settings.
When on the bus or in school, students will be cohorted as a way to reduce their contacts, and if one becomes ill with COVID-19, the whole cohort will be treated as close contacts and will likely be required to stay home and self-isolate. Our local public health agency has deployed six public health nurses (PHN) to support our schools through-out the city and county. Each publicly funded school will be assigned a PHN who will be the main contact to provide proactive outreach in schools including the implementation of general public health measures like cohorting and distancing, as well as the investigation and management of cases and close contacts. The PHN will be using a comprehensive school health approach to support the Ministry of Education’s Foundations for a Healthy School.
There are mental, emotional and social benefits for students to be in school and this September, we are carefully balancing the risks and the benefits in order to best protect children and youth AND promote their health and wellbeing.
For most, that will mean a return to the classroom. Peterborough Public Health is here to support families, students and schools to make this a safe and happy transition.
By Dr. Rosana Salvaterra, Medical Officer of Health, Peterborough Public Health