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Ontario Science Table: the children’s place is at school

TORONTO – While the Ontario government has not disclosed its plan for the new school year that begins in six weeks, the Ontario Science Table has already drawn up what should be the guidelines for safe re-entry into classes. The 41-page document, which was prepared by a panel of experts led by Sick Kids Hospital, argues that schools should remain open for face-to-face learning “barring catastrophic circumstances” and that extracurricular activities should be considered “an important component of the back-to-school plan.”

The report makes it clear that school measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19 should continue for the time being, but suggests that they should be imposed differently depending on the level of “presence of the virus in the community”.

The experts’ recommendations are based on three different scenarios: one in which there are only “limited and sporadic cases” of a certain severity, another in which there is “evidence” of an upward trajectory of cases and a third with a high presence of infections and a continuous upward trajectory in hospitalizations. Experts say, that at best, contact tracing and testing would serve “as an early warning system for emerging variants and increased transmission,” allowing schools to return to a pre-pandemic pseudo-normal. And this means that there would be no obligation to move away or subdivide into groups, although the size of the classes “should still be kept as small as possible” and classroom mixing should only occur outdoors.

In situations of moderate and high risk, experts recommend a return to physical distancing in the classroom but only for older students. For the younger ones “the division into groups and the use of masks” should be emphasized instead “to allow interactions in close contact”. Even the screening of children on arrival at school to identify the symptoms of the virus should be reserved – say the report of the Science Table – to the high-risk scenario. Experts are also calling for the resumption of a number of activities that were suspended or significantly reduced at the time the pandemic got out of control last year. Assemblies can also resume in “low-risk communities” but should only be held virtually in “high-risk communities”.

Indoor sports and competitions, meanwhile, in communities where the risk of virus transmission is low can take place both outdoors and indoors but in high-risk communities they should only take place outdoors.

Cafeteria closures are not recommended for any of the scenarios, but experts say there may be staggered and shorter lunch breaks in high-risk communities. “With high vaccine uptake in the community and reduced transmission there should be a return to the provision of recreational activities to Ontario students during the 2021-2022 academic year, considering cancellation only in high-risk scenarios.”

The document does not take a position on the need to make vaccines mandatory for eligible students and school staff, but states that schools and school boards should have access to “anonymous information” on the administration of vaccines. “Immunization is the only most effective preventive intervention and its widespread administration will drastically reduce infection rates even among unvaccinated people, including children. Therefore, it is essential that vaccines are easily accessible and that their administration is encouraged for all approved age groups and that they are offered in all risk groups to improve regional vaccination coverage when epidemics occur in schools or local communities,” the study reads.

“The message of this guide is basically one: children have to be in school starting in September and have to stay in school, which is really a place of growth for them – said Ronald Cohn, president and CEO of the Hospital for Sick Children – we must ensure that children can stay in school and only under catastrophic circumstances should we use the closure of schools as a measure to control the pandemic”.

This is a report that meets with the favors of the NDP. “The Ford government should work to ensure excellent ventilation, give parents paid sick days, encourage physical distancing in the classrooms,” mpp Marit Stiles said.

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