Could schools become the next long-term care homes? Your COVID-19 questions answered


We’re breaking down what you need to know about the pandemic by answering your questions. You can send us your questions via email at COVID@cbc.ca and we’ll answer as many as we can. We’ll publish a selection of answers every weekday on our website, and we’re also putting some of your questions to the experts on the air during The National and News Network.  

Could schools become a flashpoint for infection like long-term care facilities?

Julie P. wants to know what’s being done to ensure schools don’t become outbreak hotspots like long-term care facilities.

So far, Quebec is the first province to reopen daycares and elementary schools. The province is instructing teachers to return to work today, writing in a memo, “In order to prepare for this gradual resumption of activities in schools, all school personnel must return to work full-time as of May 4.” But kids won’t be back in the classroom until May 11 in most parts of Quebec, and May 19 in greater Montreal. 

Schools in the province have been closed since mid-March, and the decision to bring children back is generating controversy, even though parents have the choice to keep their kids home.

Canada’s worst COVID-19 outbreak is in Quebec, but despite the high number of cases and deaths, Quebec’s Premier François Legault says COVID-19 is under control, and the province is pressing ahead with its plans to reopen parts of the economy and send about 500,000 people back to work, including teachers.

But could schools become a flashpoint for COVID-19 infection?

“It’s a valid question,” according to Dr. Matthew Oughton, an infectious diseases expert, and professor at McGill University. He says there is a lot we don’t know about the virus especially when it comes to children, adding “it doesn’t appear that most children who attend school will be at risk of becoming very sick themselves, but the big unknown is whether they pose a risk of infecting the adults they come into contact with at school and at home.” 

Quebec Grade 3 teacher Jennifer Bento is worried. “If I get sick, I’m not going to know where I got sick, whether it was at school or from my daughter who is also going to have to go back to school, or one of my colleagues.” 

Quebec’s director of public health, Dr. Horacio Arruda, says the province is launching a more “aggressive” testing strategy, aiming to test about 14,000 people a day compared to the 6,000 being tested daily right now.

But Oughton says any province relaxing its mitigation measures needs to increase its capacity for testing and contact tracing. 

“You have to have the capacity to do rapid testing, to identify people who are infected, and if you find there is disease, then you have to do rapid contact tracing to isolate who have been exposed to determine who is at risk of being exposed.” 

Once schools reopen outside Montreal on May 11, it could take up to two weeks to discover whether or not the move has triggered an outbreak, because COVID-19 usually requires a 5-7 day incubation period, plus up to seven more days to develop significant symptoms.

By then, Montreal’s schools will already be open, something that concerns Oughton, who would like to see the province proceed more cautiously. “You can’t fix dates, because the virus doesn’t follow a calendar.”

Montreal’s English School Board says its “elementary schools will not reopen until student and staff safety can be assured” it is safe to do so. And Quebec’s largest teacher’s union, Federation autonome de l’enseignment, is demanding the government provide personal protective equipment  including masks, visors, gloves and gowns to teachers who request it.

In a statement to CBC News, Quebec’s Ministry of Education says additional personal protective equipment will only be provided to daycare workers, but there are other measures in place to keep elementary teachers and children safe including increased hygiene protocols, physical distancing, and smaller class sizes.

Listen to CBC’s Front Burner for more about Quebec’s high-stakes plan to reopen schools.

Will summer camps be open this year?

We are receiving a lot of questions about whether or not children will be going to camp this summer, including this email from Julie S. who’s wondering whether day or overnight camps will be operating, especially now that Quebec has decided to reopen elementary schools. 

Many jurisdictions have already ordered camps to close this year, but some camps are still thinking about opening, if the situation in Canada improves. 

Manitoba is one province that has given the green light to day camps, as long as group sizes are capped at 16 and interactions between kids are kept to ‘brief exchanges.’ 

But some experts raise concerns around how physical distancing can be ensured among children. 

“Although being outdoors is healthy and low risk, overall I cannot see how you could truly manage appropriate distancing in a kids’ camp,” says Dr. Lynora Saxinger, infectious diseases expert and associate professor at the University of Alberta. 

Saxinger says that although she is very sympathetic to cooped up families, “there is a lot of uncertainty in our understanding of SARS-C0V-2 in kids.”

Despite children having lower rates of hospitalization, there is still conflicting data about how often they are infected and whether they do transmit the disease to others. 

So Saxinger warns that there is a potential risk that children could contract COVID-19, and bring it home with them, infecting the more vulnerable members of their families. 

My wife has a heart condition. Is she more at risk now that provinces are reopening?

Chris D.’s wife is a heart transplant recipient who is susceptible to bronchitis and pneumonia. He wants to know whether she’s more at risk, now that provinces are making plans to slowly reopen, because he could catch the virus and bring it home.

Infectious diseases specialist at University Health Network in Toronto Dr. Isaac Bogoch says Chris should be concerned. 

“When things are slowly opening up and there’s, perhaps, more opportunities to transmit this infection, we have to be very, very careful,” he says. “You need to do everything you can to prevent infection from coming into the home and affecting this individual with a compromised immune system.”

While eliminating the risk completely isn’t possible, Bogoch provides some advice on how to mitigate it, including dividing the house, “impeccable hand hygiene,” and isolating individuals who experience symptoms.

“This is not a no-risk scenario, it’s just trying to get that risk as low as possible,” says Bogoch. 

To prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Health Canada recommends washing your hands frequently for at least 20 seconds with soap and water, not touching your face, practise social distancing, and stay home if you’re sick. 

We’re also answering your questions every night on The National. Last night your questions included, should people over age 70 self-isolate until there is a vaccine? Watch below:

Doctors answer your questions about COVID-19, including whether people over the age of 70 should self-isolate at home until there is a treatment or vaccine. 4:17

Friday we answered questions about reopening provinces and remdesivir. Read here.

Keep your questions coming by emailing us at COVID@cbc.ca.



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