Coronavirus: How the rise of new variants in Canada could impact schools

After an extended period of virtual learning amid a COVID-19 lockdown, the return to in-person classes in Toronto comes as a relief to parents like David Wood.

“I love my kids but they were starting to drive me nuts,” the single father of three told Global News.

Still, Wood admits he is worried about the potential of new COVID-19 variants including B1.1.7, the variant that first emerged in the U.K.

“The key to remember here, is (the B1.1.7 variant) appears to be more transmissible, somewhere in the range of 40 to 70 per cent and that appears across the board on age,” said Jean-Paul Soucy, an infectious disease epidemiologist and PhD student at the University of Toronto.

READ MORE:  ‘Perfect Storm’: Is Canada headed for a third wave of COVID-19

Click to play video 'Variants in Alberta schools: how much spread there’s actually been' Variants in Alberta schools: how much spread there’s actually been

Variants in Alberta schools: how much spread there’s actually been

In Alberta, where in-person learning at schools resumed on Jan. 11, there have been in-school exposures to the B1.1.7 variant in at least nine schools. As of Tuesday, cases of in-school transmission had been detected in three.

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“In a small number (of schools),  we’re seeing a small handful of secondary cases, but again, no large exposure events in schools,” Alberta Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw said during her daily provincial briefing Tuesday. “The risk does not seem to be any different within that school, whether (the exposure) is a variant or not.”

Click to play video 'Some provinces ease restrictions as variant concerns rise' Some provinces ease restrictions as variant concerns rise

Some provinces ease restrictions as variant concerns rise

Infectious diseases physician Dr. Martha Fulford says that should be reassuring to parents.

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“I wouldn’t be that concerned. I don’t think anyone expects there to be no transmission in schools.”

Fulford points to the fact that COVID-19 does not usually lead to serious illness for children.  In Canada, only a small number of children have had to be hospitalized because of COVID-19 and fewer than five have died.

“The single most important thing we have to focus on, for me, is the overall health and well-being of our children and for that schools have been unequivocally shown to be important.”

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Still, it’s unclear if schools could amplify transmission of the variant virus as community case numbers rise. The B1.1.7 variant has been shown to spread more easily among household contacts.

READ MORE: ‘Significant underestimation’ of Canada’s COVID-19 case count

“Even if there are a few cases at a school, let’s say it has a high attack rate in the household and one of the parents works at a meat processing plant or another high-risk work environment — it is all connected, it’s all a chain.”

That chain is a concern to the public health officials in Alberta as well. It’s why the province is now asking anyone who tests positive for the variant to isolate away from their household contacts at a government-provided hotel. If they do not, those household contacts are required to quarantine for up to 24 days.

Click to play video 'Canada’s Dr. Tam says new coronavirus variants need rapid response' Canada’s Dr. Tam says new coronavirus variants need rapid response

Canada’s Dr. Tam says new coronavirus variants need rapid response

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