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  • Tracy Sherlock

This week in education: Does opening schools feed a covid surge?

This week, Dr. Bonnie Henry added the words "be brave" to her covid-19 mantra. (Photo: VSB)

Between Friday and Tuesday, there were 41 schools in B.C. with covid-19 exposure events, according to the BC Centres for Disease Control health authority websites. That number is growing every week – the previous week there were 33 exposures reported for the entire week. In Surrey, there are 20 exposure alerts posted and in Vancouver there are 18.

B.C.’s Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry says those exposures are being nipped in the bud before they become outbreaks through contact tracing, but some parents and teachers remain concerned. Between October 8 and October 15, 49 children under age 10 tested positive and 88 children between 10 and 19 tested positive.

For concerned parents and teachers, it may feel like they and their children are part of a giant global experiment testing what happens when schools open during a pandemic. It may ease their minds – or not – to learn that a new study by Insights for Education found no consistent pattern between whether schools are open and covid-19 infection rates. Similar research from Spain found that there are no significant effects of the reopening of schools.

This may seem counterintuitive, since cases have definitely been rising in B.C. since September, but that rise started earlier as everything opened up again. Even in August, B.C. was averaging about 80 new covid-19 cases every day.

In B.C., the jury is still out about the effects of the reopening of schools on the pandemic overall.

The Insights for Education study found the experience of reopening schools varies greatly by country. As we’ve seen in Canada, it also varies greatly by province and even by school district. In B.C., every district has opened with different models for hybrid learning, if any, and different class sizes. Without a doubt, how well the community is keeping covid-19 in control is reflected in the schools in that particular community.

Closure policies also varied greatly in severity and scope, the study found. In some well-resourced countries, the trend is to close a particular school, test everyone who is a direct contact and then reopen the school in one to three days. “One exceptional example can be seen at a high school in Germany, where all students are tested in school twice a week. Results are received the next day by email,” the study found. In B.C., a few student cohorts have been told to self-isolate, but no school closures have been reported and there is no testing in schools for students or teachers without symptoms.

Most countries with open schools require teachers and upper primary and secondary students to wear masks, the study found. In B.C., older students are required to wear masks only when they cannot physically distance.

Also, the study found that transparency in reporting is key to building trust. As an example, in Japan, the number of closure days per school is reported.

“This level of transparency is reassuring to parents, teachers and students and could be a helpful model in terms of sharing such data as a mechanism for transparency and building confidence,” the study found.

Although reporting procedures are working better than they did at first in B.C., there are still some gaps that parents have taken to social media to fill.

The most critical lesson from the research, the study concludes, is to learn how best to continue learning during the pandemic.

“This means revisiting response plans, shifting from emergency measures to chronic vigilance, adapting flexibility for hybrid learning – especially in the poorest of communities – and continually upgrading our collective knowledge based on global experiences.”

Insights for Education recommends more study about making sure the most vulnerable students stay in school, catch-up learning, review of teacher and student absentee rates and preparation for potential future closures.

Around B.C.

North Shore News reporter Jane Seyd has taken a detailed look at some of the exposures in North Vancouver and West Vancouver schools, including reports of entire cohorts being asked to self-isolate.

Elsewhere in schools around the world

New York city is one of the few big cities in the U.S. where schools have opened for in-person instruction and health officials are conducting random covid-19 tests there to control transmission. After three weeks of back to school, there were only a surprisingly low 28 positives out of more than 16,000 tests. The 28 positives were 20 staff members and eight students, the New York Times reports.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is this report about schools in Utah, where covid-19 cases in schools exploded to the point schools had to be closed. It’s a lesson in what can happen in schools if the virus is out of control in the community.

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