Safety concerns abound as students head back to school

Assessing health, safety, and infection control risks of going back to school against the value of physical classes is a tricky balance.
Monday, January 25, 2021

Health and safety in education facilities is a key priority for Canada right now as provinces and advocates push for students to go back to school safely.

On Monday, January 25, more than 100,000 Ontario students return to in-person learning, and classes are set to restart in Toronto, Peel, Hamilton, Windsor, and York regions on Feb. 10. In other provinces like Quebec and British Columbia, many students have been back in class for two weeks now.

It’s a tricky balance: assessing the health, safety, and infection control risks against the value of children having access to physical classes.

Support for returning to class

For what it’s worth, the return to class has gained the support of the Paediatricians Alliance of Ontario (PAO), which emphasized the gap that can open up if in-person education remains off the table.

“Ontario paediatricians are witnessing first-hand the effect of school closures on children and youth,” says a PAO statement. “The closures are having a major immediate effect on the emotional functioning and physical health of children and families. Paediatricians are seeing a sharp increase in suicidal attempts, depression, anxiety, substance abuse, overdoses, eating disorders, obesity, and late presentation of a host of medical conditions in patients.”

The statement added that schools are an essential service, and that the PAO “strongly urges the Government of Ontario to widely publicize and promote supports that our children, parents and educators need to function better during this COVID-19 pandemic.”

Prioritizing safety

However, it stressed that while it “wholeheartedly” supports the return to in-person learning, “enhanced safety measures” must continue. The PAO cites the likes of systematic testing, vaccinating teachers, reducing class sizes, wearing masks, hand hygiene, and maintaining two metres of physical distance as known strategies that will keep schools and society safe.

In its own statement issued Sunday, the Ontario government took pains to alleviate public concerns by emphasizing that health and safety measures remain its priority.

Education Minister Stephen Lecce stressed that “additional and tougher layers of protection” will be in place.

“Ontario has the most comprehensive and highest funded school safety plan in Canada, which includes the largest increase in teacher and staff hiring, an enhanced screening and masking policy, and the highest investment in ventilation improvements,” noted Lecce. He added that other measures will include provincewide targeted asymptomatic testing, more comprehensive screening protocols, and mandatory masking for students in Grades 1-3 and outdoors where physical distancing cannot be maintained.

Concerns over air quality

The mention of ventilation is notable, as HVAC safety has been a major focus of debate in recent months during the pandemic.

Over in Quebec, where schools have been open for the last two weeks, the Centrale des syndicats du Québec (CSQ) and affiliated federations are formally demanding a prompt response from the provincial government to recommendations made by a group of air quality experts.

The CSQ, which represents more than 200,000 members including approximately 125,000 education staff, notes that union leaders were left “unconvinced” by the results of air quality tests and the plan to address HVAC issues in schools. While their statement focuses on education in Quebec, the concerns are prevalent nationwide and beyond.

“We deplore the lack of foresight and action in the school system, given that the second wave was inevitable,” wrote Sonia Ethier, CSQ President, in a letter to deputies Roberge and Dubé and Public Health Director Dr. Arruda. “For decades, we’ve been calling for measures to improve the air quality in our schools and centres, but due to austerity policies, we’ve reached a point where we have to open our classroom windows in the dead of winter, which is unacceptable.”

In addition to making “all necessary and urgent corrections immediately,” the CSQ and its federations are demanding:

  • The immediate closure of unventilated spaces with no windows, including small meeting rooms. If no safe alternatives are found in these situations, telework should be made mandatory
  • The removal of pregnant women from the buildings, with no conditions
  • In rooms with windows, the installation of air purifiers as backup, and ensuring they are installed by school support staff or a qualified professional
  • The establishment, in the short term, of a full equipment register and a detailed maintenance and testing calendar for each facility, and making it available to the public

For what it’s worth, Ontario’s government notes that SickKids confirmed that the province’s return to school in fall was successful at a time when community transmission was low.

Ontario says its return-to-school plan has been informed by the best medical advice available, including that of SickKids.

In its updated guidance for reopening published last week, SickKids wrote that the suspension of in-person learning should be “a last resort for pandemic control” given the “significant negative impact” it can cause.

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