GUELPH – Public health officials say keeping community transmission of COVID-19 low is a key factor in keeping the coronavirus out of schools.
“We are implementing a number of public health measures (in schools) that reduce risks and that’s going to bring that risk down,” said Dr. Matthew Tenenbaum, associate medical officer of health for Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health (WDGPH).
“It’s not going to bring it down to zero.
“We are expecting that we’re going to see at some point in the year cases and possible outbreaks of COVID-19.”
Tenenbaum said a lot of the risk in schools is linked to risk in the broader community.
“If COVID-19 cases or infections appear in schools … it will be because people are coming into schools with infections and of course we’ll do everything we can to reduce that risk and to manage those cases if they come up,” he said.
“The most important thing is for us to all do our part to make sure that we’re reducing transmission in the broader community so that by extension our schools are safer as are our congregate settings and all the other places that COVID-19 could spread.”
As schools begin to reopen on Sept. 10 after being closed since March 13, they will look quite different from previous years.
But public health officials recognize that when students aren’t in school it limits their education opportunities, impacts their families, impacts their health and has a number of ripple effects on the community.
“We recognize as we go back to school that this is going to be the biggest program that we are going to be running at public health for the next … eight weeks, 12 weeks possibly much, much longer,” said Dr. Nicola Mercer, Medical Officer of Health.
At the Sept. 9 WDGPH meeting the board received a report from Mercer and Tenenbaum about the measures put in place to keep students and staff safe in schools.
“A lot of these public health measures, things like physical distancing and masking require some creativity and thinking outside the box compared to how schools typically run in non-COVID years,” Tenenbaum said.
“And like many parts of our society this is a big adaptation that the sector has to make and we’ve been working to support them in that transition to help them understand what that means and how to actually implement it on the ground.”
He said it would take a lot of creativity to implement as many public health measures as possible.
Additionally, over the course of the pandemic, public health has been learning more about the transmission of the virus.
“Children aren’t as big a source of COVID-19, we believe, right now, compared to what we believed initially, so with public health measures we can and we will do this safely in a way that supports students and families while keeping everyone in the school environment safe,” Tenenbaum said.
Another measure is providing additional nursing staff to the school system.
The province provided the health unit with funding for 14 additional nurses, which means there will be one nurse for every three to four thousand students or approximately one nurse for every 10 schools.
“There was some thought that we might have one nurse per school and I just wanted to say ‘yes that would be lovely’ – although that would be a lot to manage but that’s not the resources we have,” Mercer said.
A new public health school team, including these nurses, is going to support schools in a new way this year.
“We’re going to have nurses tied up with a set of schools that they’re supporting, make sure as the year goes on, as challenges arise, we have the right resources in place to work with the schools to navigate those challenges,” Tenenbaum said.
Each principal will have the name and direct phone number for the public health nurse associated with the school.
That way if they have any concerns they can contact their nurse quickly, whether it’s about policy, procedural activities, infection and control measures, public health measures or anything else.
However, Mercer made it clear that nurses would not be doing specific clinical work in schools.
“If a student is sick the nurse will not be attending them or sending them home, but the nurse will be supporting the principal to ensure that the teachers and the staff within the school are able to follow through that process efficiently,” she said.
Mercer said the school team has been working with both the Upper Grand District School Board and the Wellington Catholic District School Board for months to implement reopenings.
“We know that not every school is going to look the same,” she said. “Schools come in different shapes and sizes and ages and they have different resources within the schools.
“So we recognize that there isn’t one specific model that’s going to be perfect in every school.”
Mercer explained it’s important for parents and boards to recognize these differences and work within the resources available.
“Our very junior classes, our JKs and SK students, Grade 1, they have very different classroom types than our more seniors students,” Mercer said.
“So we’ve been working closely with schools to enable them to maximize the public health measures that they have available to them within the environment that they have.”
Public health has also been working with school boards on what will happen if there are cases or outbreaks in the school.
“We’ve been working with them on things like flow charts and other resources to make sure that again we’re crystal clear about how that would work and supporting them from as close as we can along the way,” Tenenbaum said.
An outbreak is classified as “at least two cases that are linked together by some sort of common exposure,” Tenanbaum said.
“One of the things we’ve been talking about with partners about outbreaks is that each outbreak is different and of course when we have an outbreak we go in, we do a risk assessment, we understand the dynamics of what’s going on and we respond in a way that’s aligned with risk and aligned with our understanding of those dynamics.”
Board member June Hofland asked who would be responsible if there is a possibility of closing a school.
Tenenbaum explained it would be a local decision, but prior to any closure public health would work with the school and board as part of a case and outbreak management process.
“If in our estimation of risk we thought closing the school was needed in order to keep people safe, that would be something that we (put) forward as an outbreak measure that they implement,” he said.
“But there would be a number of steps before we get to that point and we would already be having a number of conversations.”
Board chair George Bridge, who is also Minto mayor, said it’s important that public health get school board openings right.
“Especially in the rural communities that we are in,” Bridge said.
“It would be nice if you could say you had a great internet system you could go virtual and maybe that would be (it), but we don’t have that capability in rural areas.”
He added, “This is number one priority in my mind, along with testing, and if we get testing and this right we can get through the next six or seven months we need until we get a vaccine and hopefully we get it moving forward.”
To read the full public health report click here.