Brandon schools should reconsider opening plans if COVID-19 spread continues, epidemiologist says

By | August 19, 2020

A Winnipeg epidemiologist says Brandon — or any community — with uncontained community spread of COVID-19 should reconsider whether schools should reopen in just under three weeks.

Cynthia Carr, an epidemiologist and founder of Epi Research Inc., said there is no evidence of success in reopening schools in any country that did not have community-based spread under control.

“Any school in any community where there is not control of community based spread should delay a little bit,” Carr said. “That’s what we have learned from around the world.”

Elsewhere, some schools have had to close again or quarantine students after reopening. For example, earlier this month in the U.S., a Georgia school district had to quarantine more than 800 students because of possible COVID-19 exposure after classes resumed in-person a week earlier. Other Atlanta-area school districts scrapped in-person learning amid a spike in cases of COVID-19 in the state.

In Manitoba, students are set to return to schools on Sept. 8. In-class learning in Manitoba was suspended in March.

But the pending reopening comes as Brandon grapples with a cluster of COVID-19 cases. As of Tuesday afternoon, there were 82 active cases of COVID-19 in the southwestern Manitoba city, making it the province’s largest hot spot of the illness caused by the novel coronavirus.

“Any community where there is an outbreak or a sudden escalation of cases absolutely should be taking precautions that are different from other areas,” said Carr, suggesting increased mask use and even delaying the start of school should be considered.

‘Our plan is going to be fluid’

As with other Manitoba schools, kindergarten to Grade 8 students in Brandon are set to return to class full time this fall.

The Brandon School Division’s plan calls for high school students to attend every other day. Students whose last names start with A to K will alternate days with L to Z students.

Despite concerns from some parents about the safety of schools, Brandon School Division superintendent Marc Casavant said he’d leave it up to provincial health officials to decide if things need to change.

Brandon School Division superintendent Marc Casavant said the division’s plans could change based on advice from provincial health officials. Brandon is currently the site of one of Manitoba’s largest COVID-19 clusters. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

“I have children myself in the system and I have a spouse that works in the system, and I think if we follow the public health measures that it will be a safe place to be,” he told reporters last Friday. 

But he said the division’s plan isn’t set in stone.

“Our plan is going to be fluid. There’s going to be changes,” Casavant said. “The success of our plan is going to be a reflection of the community.”

However, the division has left decisions about how things like lockers, recesses and lunch breaks will work up to individual schools, with plans expected in the coming weeks.

Staggered approach

Carr suggested school divisions take an even more cautious approach to welcoming students back. 

“They should consider a staged approach,” she said.

That could mean having younger students go back to class first, followed by a pause to determine if there’s any increase in cases in the community.

“And if not, being back the older students,” she said. 

Brandon School Division superintendent Marc Casavant at a news conference on Aug. 14, next to the kind of plexiglass divider schools in the southwestern Manitoba city will have in their offices starting next month. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

Manitoba Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Brent Roussin has said nothing is off the table when it comes to reintroducing pandemic restrictions — even for specific areas of the province — if there is a localized uptick in cases.

Carr suggests parents talk to their kids about what they could find when they go back to school in September. They should also listen to, and trust, Dr. Roussin’s advice, she said.

“Trust him, trust his knowledge, trust his team that he has, and trust the ongoing communication and transparency that we have experienced from him in this province.”

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