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Plan for inevitable COVID-19 cases in schools, says chief public health officer


OTTAWA — Canada's chief public health officer says families should expect to see cases of COVID-19 in schools as children head back to class.

It is important that each school have a plan and that everyone knows what to do when there's an outbreak of the novel coronavirus, Dr. Theresa Tam told a news briefing Friday.

It's normal to feel stressed about the fact many students are returning to classrooms, she said. But planning and awareness will help reduce anxiety.

"I do think that people should expect to come across cases in the school year, because this is inevitable," Tam said.

"Schools need plans, and those plans must entail a very good discussion between school boards, teachers, parents and the local public health jurisdiction as well, to ensure a return to school that is as safe as possible."

As thousands of Montreal-area students return to class, the Quebec government is facing criticism from some teachers, parents and school administrators, who say the province's back-to-school directives are unclear — and sometimes contradictory.

In British Columbia, a group of COVID-19 modellers says the province should increase physical distancing measures to help it more safely reopen schools.

While Canada generally has quite low levels of COVID-19, families will still have lots of questions about children being back in a classroom, Tam acknowledged.

Parents face difficult decisions and carefully weighing the risks and benefits is paramount, she said.

Tam also urged an ongoing dialogue and careful consideration when a COVID-19 case does arise.

"I think that people should not have a massive knee-jerk reaction and just close everything but have local public health examine that situation and provide the advice of what to do in that instance," she said.

"The key is to spot those cases quickly, manage those small clusters, don't let them spread, and see if we can't adapt our protocols and live with the virus."

Efforts will be made to limit the impact on a school that has a case through cleaning and distancing measures that will be "as targeted, as precise and as surgical as they can in managing those circumstances."

"So that requires a lot of discussion in those particular settings to make sure everybody is actually comfortable with those measures."

It will also be helpful to systematically collect school-related data about COVID-19 transmission, Tam said.

"Right now the data suggests that schools are not a major driver for transmission in the community, but we have to actually get that data and see in the Canadian context." 

Data on schools where there are no outbreaks will be useful, too, she said. "Because you want to learn, well, what made that setting successful?"

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 28, 2020.

— With files from Jillian Kestler-D'Amours in Montreal and Amy Smart in Vancouver

Jim Bronskill , The Canadian Press

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