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Local health unit is ready to manage COVID-19 at public schools

August 21, 2020   ·   0 Comments

Keeping COVID-19 out of school is a top priority for the local board and health unit.

Both elementary and secondary schools are ready to open up across Simcoe County next month and the Simcoe Muskoka District Health Unit (SMDHU) will be heavily involved with work to limit COVID-19 infections and handle positive cases.

“There are indeed concerns about the coming opening of schools and to me this will be another great test for us in flattening the curve and keeping the pandemic under control,” said SMDHU Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Charles Gardner.

“It’s certainly important for schools to reopen again and for children to be able to go back full time, particularly young children, we know that’s important for their mental health, physical health and emotional and social wellbeing.”

Dr. Gardner said the SMDHU is well equipped to assist school boards this fall.

“We have a strong infrastructure in our agency with schools, they are very much an important audience for us, or partner for us, to be working with on many public health issues and certainly very much now with COVID-19,” he explained.

“This is like having a fourth stage of opening up the province as we move into the schools commencing again in September, it’s another potential source of transmission in the community that we have to manage carefully together,” he continued.

“We’ve often seen some trade-offs in risk with each step of the way as we’ve opened up the economy knowing that certainly there is real harm associated with these control measures going on unmitigated over time.”

Dr. Gardner said work is underway with the Simcoe County District School Board (SCDSB) on how to respond to outbreaks among staff and students.

“Our standard approach would be to investigate the cases and their contacts, immediately connect with the school, the school board and, in short order, have the communication through the school board to the affected families,” he explained.

“We would have to identify who would need to be isolated and followed up for testing.”

Future instances of spread would be identified right away, where people could have been in contact with positive cases and they would then self isolate as well as seek testing.

“You’d have to identify whether other schools were involved, whether there were any staff who potentially serviced more than one school that could have been a potential cause of transmission to other schools,” Dr. Gardner said.

He said SMDHU will have no problem controlling school-based infections as it’s familiar with the setting and has been doing case management since March.

“We’ve had experience over many years with school-related clusters of other cases of other reportable diseases, so we have a lot of experience to draw on, about how to manage an outbreak in a school setting or a class setting,” Dr. Gardner said. “We would have to adapt it of course to COVID-19.

“Certainly, we’ve had a lot of experience now in dealing with COVID-19 outbreaks in other work environments and long-term care facilities that we could also draw on.”

The full action plan for when a student tests positive is still being finalized but will be released prior to the first day of school.

A key point of concern for many parents sending their children back for in-person learning has been the change to a minimum of one-metre physical distancing, instead of two.

“Well, for sure physical distancing is very important, its probably the single most effective intervention that we have and for sure children going back to school will lead to a compromise of that, there will be some risk associated with that,” Dr. Gardner said.

“There’s a greater degree of distancing with the teachers because they’re going to be – from a health point of view – at a greater risk, particularly older teachers with medical conditions, than the students would be.”

There is some degree of risk associated with the inability to physically distance optimally in schools, if the class sizes are larger, but it has to be balanced by the benefits brought about through in-person learning, Dr. Gardner said.

“It’s certainly the view of my colleagues across the province that its vitally important that schools commence and they go back to being full time for younger children, for their otherwise mental wellbeing, their health overall and for the wellbeing of families so they can get back to work,” Dr. Gardner explained.

“It’s going to be a conflict I would say to be able to achieve both, to be able to have smaller class sizes and physical distancing versus going back full time to school, five days a week, for the younger children in particular.”

By Sam Odrowski
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter


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