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So, should schools really reopen right now?

February 15, 2021

By Nick Parker

Without a clear understanding of the connection between the novel coronavirus and children, Ontario is set to open up schools in three hot zones. Despite many reasons why schools should remain open, some data points to them being a major concern for COVID-19 transmission.

We are left to wonder, does opening schools in Ontario leave us vulnerable to a possible spike in cases, or even a third wave? The majority of the evidence we have seems to be mixed, though this idea of schools being transmission zones is not an absurd one.

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The data shows that when schools opened up in September of last year, provincial COVID-19 cases have gone from averaging 100-200 infections per day, to almost 2,000-3,000 infections per day. The data comes from an overview of cases shown on the Government of Ontario’s website.

Looking at the data comparing daily COVID-19 numbers in Ontario, we find that there have been 185 daily cases on Sept. 8, 2020, the day schools started for kids in the fall. Two weeks later, on Sept. 22, 2020, Ontario saw 478 cases – the highest number of daily cases in the two prior months.

When looking at the regions of Toronto and Peel, the implementation of restrictive measures did not prevent a rise in COVID-19 numbers when schools were allowed to remain open. 

But does this correlation equate to causation? And are we really ready to reopen schools again?

What we know about COVID-19 and children?

The World Health Organization (WHO) acknowledged in a report released in October 2020, that they do not fully understand the role children play in the transmission of the virus. The report further acknowledged that children and adults are not affected equally by the virus, and states that asymptomatic and mild cases in children are common and may be underreported.

The report also noted that early modelling studies have suggested “closing schools reduced community transmission less than other social distancing interventions.” 

Additionally, in an epidemiological update released on Jan. 19, 2021, the WHO stated that children under the age of 10 may be less infectious than adults. The adolescent demographic, however, seems to spread the virus as frequently as adults do. Still, the WHO states that the evidence for closing schools to reduce community spread is “mixed.”

Recently, the WHO cited a study by the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) which found that in the Republic of Korea, children under the age of 10 are less contagious than adults. Although, further digging into the study revealed statistics about the importance of closing schools to suppress the outbreaks within the community. This is evident in the CDC study which further states: “In the case of seasonal influenza epidemics, the highest secondary attack rate occurs among young children.

“Children who attend daycare or school also are at high risk for transmitting respiratory viruses to household members…A recent report from Shenzhen, China, showed that the proportion of infected children increased during the outbreak from 2 per cent to 13 per cent, suggesting the importance of school closure.”

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Contact Tracing during Coronavirus Disease Outbreak

The CDC culminated its study stating that it’s not conclusive and that more research in this area needs to be done to “evaluate the public health benefit of school closure as part of mitigation strategies.”

Implications of long-term school closures

While it may seem like an obvious choice to pull students out of school until the threat of the virus is mitigated, there may be more to consider than originally thought.

According to the epidemiological update mentioned earlier, the WHO stated that school closures can impact various other aspects of children’s lives, other than their education.

Specifically, they state that school closures can affect children’s “health (both physical and mental health) and development” and can directly impact a parent’s ability to work. 

“The longer vulnerable children are out of school, the less likely they are to return. Being out of school also increases the risk of teenage pregnancy, sexual exploitation, child marriage, violence and other threats.”

World Health Organization

For women, the repercussions of the pandemic have impacted many aspects of their lives. And some say that this could be a result of school closures.

Throughout the first two months of the pandemic, women in the workforce were affected more compared to men. Data from a study done by the Catalyst shows a drop from 61.2 per cent of women in the workforce in February 2020, to 55.5 per cent in April 2020.

Bipasha Baruah, professor and Canada Research Chair in global women’s issues told Burnout Digital that there are various factors that could be influencing this. 

“Women are more likely to work in industries that are hardest hit… and also sectors that are less conducive to working remotely,” said Baruah. “More women tend to be in part-time work that is already precarious to begin with. And they already are kind of at the bottom rung of that sector. If an industry is going to let people go, those workers are going to find themselves let go first.”

Baruah also broke down the demographic further, stating that the biggest ‘cohorts’ who faced the highest dropout rate in the workforce were women between the ages of 20-24 and 35-39.

“So that demographic [women aged 20-24], I’m less worried about because they’ll be able to go back [workforce], especially if they’re spending this time retraining in some way,” said Baruah.

However, according to Baruah, the older demographic of women aged 35-39 may have more difficulty establishing themselves back into the workplace. She believes that many of these women who have invested years into their careers may have to return to more “precarious work” as they may not be able to return to the positions they had when they left the workforce.

“…they might have to go back as consultants, even if they previously had full-time work. They might have to go back with fewer work hours or to a more junior position. And that, then, will have a really severe knock-on effect that will last a generation… you have women who would have been eligible for executive positions, leadership positions, [or] serving on boards [if it were not for COVID-19].”

Bipasha Baruah

Baruah further acknowledged that when it comes to making a decision about which parent will ‘take a hit to their career’ to carry out home responsibilities, it is typically the woman.It was not so much that schools closed, it’s the uncertainty around when they would open again,” she said. To Baruah, the uncertainty of when schools would reopen hinders a woman’s plan to return to the workforce or even makes it difficult to continue working from home. 

She also noted that this issue impacts families with single parent incomes, or families who care for children with disabilities.

“But I would encourage that we think about it a bit more broadly… So, you talk about single parents, you know, they don’t have that option. They do have to go to work. And I say single parents, not women, because there are many dads in that situation as well.”

Bipasha Baruah

Parents of Young Children 

An article written by Vox details various reasons why parents of young children are sick more often compared to other demographics. This article, it should be noted, was published in 2016. 

The article states four main reasons as to why children often get sick; kids’ immune systems are developing, so they pick up everything; kids get sick with infections that parents don’t develop lifelong immunity to; children spend their time in germ factories — a.k.a. day care and school; and parents are tired and run-down, and so are their immune systems. 

In a study cited within the medical journal Clinical Infectious Diseases, published by the Oxford University Press on Oct. 15, 2015, detection of a respiratory virus was found to be “more common in adults aged 18–39 than in older adults.” It acknowledges that “many in this age group were parenting young children.” 

The journal also cites how children younger than the age of 5 were found to have “reported symptoms more often and were more likely to have a virus detected than older participants.”

The consequences of long-term virtual learning

As of today, we do not fully understand the long-term consequences that e-learning may have on child development.

In a study published by Daniela Fontenelle-Tereshchuk, editorial assistant for the Journal of Educational Thought, run by the Werklund School of Education, she writes:“The mental health of both parents and students is a concern to education due to the uncertainty surrounding this unprecedented time that people worldwide are experiencing, mainly caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Her study is based on a case study of ten elementary school parents from various school boards in Alberta, and how their mental health and that of their children have been impacted by the current pandemic. 

Interestingly, all ten parents indicated that school closures had given them a reason to be concerned for the mental health of their children.

“Technology has many benefits and it was key to make learning from home possible or easier for the school community during this pandemic,” said Fontenelle-Tereshchuk. 

“However, overexposure to more than two hours daily of screen time may lead to mental and health problems in children such as sedentarism and depression.”

Daniela Fontenelle-Tereshchuk

Even with more mature age demographics such as college and university students, there is an increase in mental health issues due to online learning. University students around Canada have experienced full school closures since mid-March, 2020. 

In a study published by the Journal of Medical Internet Research, they examined the mental health impacts on college students from a “large university system in Texas”, who have had their campus closed since March 23, 2020.

From the survey group of 195, they found that 71 per cent of students indicated increased stress and anxiety due to the pandemic, 89 per cent reported difficulty concentrating, 86 per cent reported difficulty sleeping and 82 per cent reported increased concerns with their academic performance.

The conclusion of the survey stated that, with the “long-lasting pandemic situation and onerous measures such as lockdown and stay-at-home orders,” the pandemic has negatively impacted the mental health of students in higher education.

“The findings of our study highlight the urgent need to develop interventions and preventive strategies to address the mental health of college students.

Journal of Medical Internet Research

In an article written by Inside Higher Ed, it is reported that “with remote learning moving into the long term, experts say the mental, emotional and academic impacts of that shift are likely to be challenging.” 

Amy Bintliff, a developmental psychologist and professor at the University of California, San Diego’s department of education studies told Higher Ed: “…mismatch between expectation and reality can be difficult for students. Part of that is because important milestones, like graduation, can’t happen the way they were envisioned. Traditional-age students may struggle uniquely with the loss of certain coming-of-age experiences.”

Preparations for reopening: Ventilation in Toronto schools

In an article written in November of last year, Toronto Star reported that while COVID-19 is known to be an airborne virus, schools are not prioritizing ventilation.

Liz Stuart, president of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Federation told the Star: “We have been raising the issue of the lack of proper ventilation and filtration within schools for, well frankly, for years, since SARS first came around.” 

In a statement given to Burnout Digital, Ryan Bird, Manager of corporate and social media relations wrote: “Overall, the TDSB (Toronto District School Board) spends millions of dollars on mechanical system upgrades each year as part of our school renewal program…Those projects take time to plan and design, and it also takes time to complete the construction work.”

It is unclear when the funding for the ‘school renewal program’ began and what specific upgrades this program entails.

Along with these proposed upgrades, the TDSB has implemented a new plan to allow ventilation to run for hours before and after school to ‘flush the school with fresh air’ while ‘ensuring clean filters’ are installed and HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) systems are inspected more often than usual.

Furthermore, the TDSB stated that they had purchased approximately 3,300 air purifiers/ HEPA filters to use in classrooms that have no mechanical ventilation or limited availability to fresh air. In addition to this, they received over 500 air purifiers donated by Danby (a U.S. based company). 

Ryan Bird told Burnout Digital only 200 schools have received air “filters.” By comparison, the TDSB is home to 600 schools across the city. It is still unclear as to how many schools have installed the purchased air purifiers, how many purifiers are needed for how many schools and, on average, per school.

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