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  • Tracy Sherlock

Keeping schools open is a priority, but it's not without risks

B.C.'s schools are open for in-person learning, but two have had to close due to covid-19 outbreaks. (Photo: Vancouver School Board.)

Why are health officials so determined to keep schools open, despite rising case counts in a global pandemic?

It’s a question I get asked all the time and it has a very important answer.

There have been more than 250 covid-19 exposures reported in B.C. schools since September and two schools have had to close for at least a two-week period, due to outbreaks.

Clearly, opening schools is not without its risks, but the reason schools will be one of the last places to be closed during the second wave of the covid-19 pandemic is because closing schools hurts children.

It hurts children and it hurts their families, especially if they happen to live in a single-parent home, be an immigrant, or live in a low-income household.

“B.C. 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,” a report by B.C. health officials found.

The number of child protection reports dropped significantly in B.C. in April and May, the report says. Why? Well, it could mean those reports were missed because most children were not in school. The report says it suggests teachers and support staff in B.C. schools play a valuable role in protecting children. Family violence is also a concern, with families stuck at home together and fewer people to detect it.

“Financial strain, isolation, and substance use are risk factors for family violence that have worsened during the pandemic,” the report says.

Schools also play a significant role in making sure vulnerable families have enough food.

Too much screen time is another concern, as is a lack of social connection and a lack of physical activity, to say nothing of the reading, writing and arithmetic lessons that are missed. A majority of B.C. families (76 per cent) reported impaired learning on the provincial covid-19 survey.

Closing schools hurts kids and families.

Data also shows that children are less likely to get severe illness or die from covid-19 and the do not appear to be a major source of virus transmission, the report says. It does admit, however, that more remains to be learned about covid-19 and the virus that causes it.

“In particular, a high burden of asymptomatic infections and mild clinical presentations for children might mean that infection occurs undetected,” the report says. Also, the jury is still out on the exact role children play in transmitting the virus. And, of course, there are many adults in schools too.

The report says lowering classroom occupancy is an important strategy to reduce transmission.

Meanwhile, B.C.’s Deputy Public Health Officer Dr. Reka Gustafson used reopening schools as a case study of how public health makes decisions during a lecture at the Vancouver Institute last weekend called Living with Covid-19 – The Long Game.

Several times she referred to covid-19 as a “wicked problem,” but also said B.C. is one of the luckiest places in the world as far as how the pandemic has played out so far.

In March, when not much was known about covid-19, schools were closed. During the 1918 flu pandemic, schools mostly remained open in Vancouver, Dr. Gustafson said.

“School closures have had a significant effect on children’s learning in B.C.,” Dr. Gustafson said. “(They) exacerbate inequality and vulnerability.”

She said the main goals of public health in a pandemic are to minimize serious illness, minimize deaths and minimize societal disruption. They are guided by the ethical principal that they should only use their power over others to prevent harm and that they should always use the least restrictive or coercive methods.

“Prevention and control cannot come at the cost of other harms that we happen not to count every day or which take a little longer to manifest,” Dr. Gustafson said.

The way British Columbia has opened schools is an example of a tool for the long game, she said. Testing and public health contact tracing will help to manage cases, clusters and outbreaks in schools, she said.

“Waiting this out is not a viable strategy,” Dr. Gustafson said. “Covid-19 is likely to be with us for the foreseeable future. We need to think through a response that is sustainable for several years.”

We definitely can’t have children missing school for several years, given the harms that come from school closures. It isn’t perfect – nothing is with covid – but the benefits of keeping schools open outweigh the risks, and that’s why public health officials want to keep them open.

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