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  • Tracy Sherlock

As school exposures grow and social gatherings are prohibited, will schools have to close?

B.C. School Covid Tracker, a Facebook group, has counted 518 exposures to covid-19 in B.C. schools since September. (Photo: Vancouver School Board.)

In the past two days, there have been at least 39 covid-19 exposures in B.C. schools, according to B.C. Centre for Disease Control tracking. Of those, a few took place in October, but are just being reported now, raising questions about how long it takes health authorities to notify the public about exposures in schools.

Since the beginning of this school year, B.C. School Covid Tracker, a Facebook page that is tracking exposures to increase transparency, has counted 518 exposures in 325 different schools.

But B.C.’s Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry says the school restart plan is working – transmission is rare in schools, which are not amplifying the spread of the virus.

On September 14, when B.C. schools opened for in-person classes, the province was averaging 110 new covid-19 cases per day. Today, nine weeks later, the province is averaging 491 new cases each day. Over the past weekend, hospitalizations jumped 30 per cent and the number of people in intensive care went up 50 per cent.

Schools are apparently not responsible for the uptick in cases, but in-person learning certainly didn’t help. Dr. Henry has said most cases are coming from private house parties, group physical activities like dance classes, and workplaces. We’ve all moved our activities mostly indoors since September and that is likely another factor in the surge.

But schools are mostly indoor spaces and in classrooms, which can have up to 30 students, masks are not required. They’re only required in hallways and crowded areas.

The American Centres for Disease Control now says that wearing a mask protects both the wearer and others. Asymptomatic and presymptomatic people are believed to spread more than 50 per cent of covid-19 cases, the CDC says. If everyone wears a mask, much of the spread by people without symptoms would be stopped. A lot of parents have asked for masks to be mandatory in schools, an argument that seems to make sense.

Many secondary schools divided their calendar into quarters for this year, so students would only take two classes at a time, a strategy that made it possible for 60-person or smaller cohorts to be maintained. But now, the first quarter is ending and the second quarter is about to begin, just as covid-19 is surging. It’s as though all of those in-school exposures are going to be randomly popped into different cohorts, just as the virus hits its worst point so far. It’s uncharted waters for any school system and remember that many school systems in North America are completely virtual this year.

Secondary schools are very different from elementary schools. Most importantly, data shows that children under the age of 10 are less likely to get severe illness or die from covid-19 and they do not appear to be a major source of virus transmission. Teenagers may transmit the virus at similar rates as adults do. Also, elementary schools are not using the quarter system, so elementary cohorts will not be flipping. Finally, in-person education seems more crucial for younger children in several ways, namely that they’re not able to study independently and their parents cannot work if they’re at home.

The harms of closing schools are many – kids miss out on social development, they lose out on food support, their academic learning, cases of child abuse go unreported and students with special needs don’t get their extra support. Dr. Henry wants to keep schools open as long as she can for those important reasons.

But when is enough, enough? B.C. just entered a two-week phase of increased restrictions where no social gatherings of any size are allowed, other than with members of your own household. People are encouraged to wear masks in all indoor public spaces.

Many teachers have asked how those rules are consistent with keeping schools open, when children and teachers in a class of 30 or a cohort of 60 are together for hours at a time in enclosed spaces without masks.

With secondary schools swapping cohorts in the middle of a two-week time out designed to break the chains of covid-19 transmission, clusters and outbreaks could pop up all over.

The first seven months of this pandemic have been relatively kind to B.C., but this virus is wickedly raging across Europe and the rest of North America. We know what’s coming. Being kind, calm, brave and safe are all very well and good, but keeping schools open with class sizes as they are, no matter what may not be the best idea.

I’m glad I am not the one who has to make these life-altering decisions, but I know if I was, I would be thinking long and hard about schools and how to make them safer during this pandemic.

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