Manitoba students have been back in classrooms for two weeks, and experts say it’s too early to assess the province’s performance — but there are additional measures officials could use to handle cases of COVID-19 in schools and learn how the illness spreads in that setting.
Over a dozen known COVID-19 cases have been linked to Manitoba schools since classes resumed on Sept. 8, including an outbreak at Winnipeg’s John Pritchard School.
But there is still little information about how the illness spreads in local school settings, said Dr. Jason Kindrachuk, an infections disease virologist at the University of Manitoba, because the province shifted schools to remote learning early in the pandemic.
“We didn’t see transmission amongst kids, because kids weren’t put in that position of being in close proximity to one another,” Kindrachuk said. “So our question right now is really how are we doing from today as compared to two weeks from now, or two weeks prior.”
Both Kindrachuk and Cynthia Carr, an epidemiologist and health policy specialist, have suggestions that could help the province fight the potential spread of the disease.
Signing on to use the Health Canada COVID Alert app would be a step, said Kindrachuk, as many teens may download it on their phones, allowing them to know where cases pop up. So far, though, Ontario, Newfoundland Labrador and Saskatchewan are the only provinces to join the initiative.
The province is reviewing that option, Dr. Brent Roussin, Chief Provincial Public Health Officer, said Monday. However, Roussin said the app would require a lot of Manitobans to sign up in order to be successful.
Kindrachuk said the province needs to continue being transparent with the public about COVID-19 in order to build trust. The public then has to practise what public health officials are telling them to do, Carr added.
Forms of testing at schools, such as pool or rapid testing, could help as well, assuming the samples are reviewed in a lab, Carr said, as the results would help experts learn more about the virus.
As flu season approaches, a potential challenge on Manitoba’s health care system is a co-occurrence threat, which means it would be battling influenza and COVID-19 at the same time, said added.
To avoid that, everybody aged six months or older should get their flu shot, she said.
Manitoba school-related cases compared to those in other provinces
Eight schools in Manitoba have reported COVID-19 cases, including an outbreak — declared when there is transmission within the school — at John Pritchard School.
The kindergarten to Grade 8 school became the province’s first to declare an outbreak after seven students and staff members from the school tested positive for COVID-19 last week.
As a result, an estimated 250 students from grades 6, 7 and 8, a split grade 4/5 class and the Henderson Early Learning Centre — the before and after school program at John Pritchard School — were sent home. The school is also now at the orange, or restricted, level under the province’s pandemic response system.
Roussin said Monday he should have more data about cases at the school available Tuesday.
Education Minister Kelvin Goertzen said last week cases at schools were expected, and other provinces are facing similar issues.
The northern and Atlantic Canada regions have no known COVID-19 cases linked to schools yet. But British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario and Quebec, combined, have roughly 758 known COVID-19 cases linked to schools or school-aged children, according to the most recent publicly available data.
Most of those cases belong to Quebec, which is reporting 507 COVID-19 cases from 272 schools as of Sept. 17.
As of Monday, Alberta is reporting 126 cases in 81 schools, Ontario is reporting 90 cases in 75 schools and British Columbia has 21 school-related cases.
Saskatchewan is reporting that 14 school-aged children have tested positive for COVID-19, but it does not track whether those kids are attending school.
Quebec and Ontario each had to shut down a school last week due to transmission within the schools. Meanwhile, 13 schools in Alberta have declared outbreaks, and the province identified its first likely case of COVID-19 transmission within a school on Friday.
Back-to-school plans differ region-to-region
Education is a provincial responsibility, so prior to back-to-school, each province and territory developed its own plan that, among other things, details the protocol to follow should a student or staff member test positive for COVID-19.
Each plan was created bearing a number of variables in mind, such as population density and socio-economic factors like health equity and issues that arose earlier in the pandemic, said Kindrachuk.
In Nunavut, community transmission of COVID-19 is enough to shut down in-school learning. In the Northwest Territories, a school outbreak — when transmission occurs in the school — will trigger the school to shut down.
Alberta may be taking the most conservative measures generally. If a student or teacher there tests positive for COVID-19, then the whole class is automatically sent home for two weeks while contact-tracing investigations are conducted.
“We made our plans to avoid just that,” said Roussin during Monday’s COVID-19 briefing, referring to shutting down schools.
Most other provinces, including Manitoba, opted to do contact tracing through attendance records and cohort and bus lists first, before deeming who needs to self-isolate and informing the necessary people.
If restrictions need to be more cautious, however, the discussion has to balance science with the well-being of students, said Carr.
“The more we contact trace, the more potential there is to find asymptomatic cases, which is good because the more we find, the more opportunity there is to stop the chain of transmission,” said Carr.
“But having kids go in and out of school all year long, it’s not going to be good for learning.”
She added that stress and anxiety regarding back-to-school will escalate for parents and students alike, as uncertainty continues looming around the spread of COVID-19 in schools.
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