Opinion: Staying home during illness could keep schools safer than ventilation, class size

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Primary and secondary students in our area returned to class on Wednesday — or Tuesday if their parents drove them or walked them — and so far it doesn’t look like the sky has fallen.

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During the pandemic, the reopening of schools has become controversial and involved not only in the politics of the pandemic, but also in the things that the pandemic has given political actors in the K-12 sector an opening to bring to the fore.

This left me working through several complex thoughts on school safety and how perceptions of school safety have changed so drastically in less than 24 months.

It starts with expectations that schools and the activities they hold inside and outside their walls pose some risk of disease transmission, especially airborne transmission.

As if there was ever a time in our history when schools were bubbles where no one ever shared mild illnesses like a cold, flu, chickenpox, stomach bugs, lice; or, occasionally, serious illnesses such as measles, mumps, whooping cough and (even, still in Canada) tuberculosis.

Two years ago, there were serious concerns that the long history of schools as vectors of community transmission of the disease could lead to the uncontrollable spread of COVID-19. Yet the past 22 months of pandemic life have shown that with some controls in place, most schools (when open) have not become those dreaded vectors. Especially in this region, where there have only been a handful of larger school-based outbreaks where research into contracts in place at the time showed people who tested positive caught COVID-19 from someone. another at school.

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Unless there is a massive capital investment to transform the hundreds of schools across Ontario into facilities with 21st century ventilation systems that operate to standards comparable to negative pressure rooms in hospitals – and then make physically boil every student and adult in the building to limit any opportunity for contamination and transmission, our schools will always be the place of transmission of certain diseases.

Even if a government has shown real interest in this investment, it physically cannot be done during a three-week winter break or a 10-week summer break. These are years of extra work. Is closing schools until then an acceptable decision?

Another request that is not feasible? Reduce class size. Unions and sympathetic political parties keep asking for it, but I don’t think any of them realize that this is another thing that could not have been accomplished over the past 22 months, or within a shorter period of time. It’s also a request that predates the pandemic by several years, which had nothing to do with the risk of disease transmission when it was first requested.

For schools at full or overcapacity today, where would these new classes go? Would the government increase funding to rent space? Would it fund the operating expenses of places in under-enrolled schools that are not being used?

Physical spaces aside, who would lead the new classes created by a lower ratio? Boards cannot fill substitute teacher rosters with enough certified candidates to handle pandemic staff absences. Where would they find the hundreds of teachers needed to reduce the size of each class?

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Locally, the past 22 months have demonstrated the effectiveness of stricter practices of sending sick people home and keeping them there. The vast majority of positive COVID-19 results related to schools in the Eastern Ontario Health Unit region have been one-and-done. The person’s illness is identified, the person is sent home, those who were in close contact with that person are monitored, and this series of spread is trampled on.

The exceptions were textbooks. Like the Cornwall school where there was plenty of anecdotal evidence – never confirmed by the school board or health unit, citing confidentiality – a staff member worked while sick during the first week of school. Every class that person interacted with during those days saw students testing positive within two weeks. Did this sick employee stay home? This epidemic would never have reached the magnitude it has reached.

This is a relevant point to remember considering how easily and quickly Omicron spread. Acquisition outside school walls will strain some schools to the point of returning to remote learning, but if those who are sick stay home, their school cannot become a home for new cases.

However, it should not be expected that no one will catch COVID-19 at school. There will always be, as there always have been, risks. The only surefire way not to catch COVID-19 (or any other disease) at school is to either not go, or to keep them closed – closing, remote learning being a decision of which the last 22 months have shown that it cannot work for everyone.

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We must shake up unrealistic expectations of zero transmission and learn to accept how to manage and mitigate the risks of disease transmission inherent in the operation of schools. As long as children are sent to school sick because their parents choose, or cannot afford, to keep them at home, and staff members choose to work while they are sick (in an area where many receive a healthy allowance of paid sick days and benefits), all other physical and personnel requirements would not work.

This is a change that could be accomplished with the right measures, faster than the physical changes to infrastructure or the increase in staff that we continue to see demanded. Have the last 22 months had enough impact to break these habits?

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twitter.com/HugoAPRodrigues

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