Normal class sizes could result in five times more COVID-19 cases in students, study finds

By | August 21, 2020

KITCHENER — The beginning of the 2020 school year is fast approaching, and many school boards are still trying to determine the best course of action.

The province has issued guidelines for a safe return that include mandatory masking for most students and smaller class sizes for high school students in some boards. Parents can also choose to keep their student home and do distance learning instead, if they prefer.

But a study out of the University of Waterloo suggests that hygiene measures alone may not be enough to keep students in the classroom this school year.

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The study used a mathematical model to compare class sizes and student-to-teacher ratios in how they influence the number of COVID-19 cases.

The model also looked at how classroom sizes impacted days of closed schools.

“The model revealed that the optimal student-to-teacher ratio required to maximize in-person instruction opportunities is below currently planned ratios in many jurisdictions, which are as high as 15:2 in childcare centres and 30:1 in schools,” a news release from the school said in part.

The province has already mandated some school boards to offer learning partly in-person and partly from a distance in order to get smaller cohorts of about 15 students. There are 24 designated school boards that are being asked to do so for their secondary school students, but elementary school students are expected to return with normal class sizes.

CALL FOR SMALLER CLASSES

Chris Bauch, the lead researcher and a professor in the school’s Faculty of Mathematics, is calling on those in power to make hybrid learning the default across the board.

“Decision-makers planning for class sizes of 30 students need to immediately reconfigure their school opening plans by switching to hybrid models, such as part in-person and part online,” he’s quoted in a news release.

Researchers looked at computer simulations of six different childcare configurations of different child-educator ratios ranging from 15:2 to 7:3. They also looks at family clustering versus random assignment.

For primary schools, the student-educator ratios ranged from 8:1 to 30:1.

Their simulations showed that the higher ratio experienced five times as many infections compared to the lowest ratio they examined. The number of days of school lost, meanwhile, were between five and eight times more at the higher ratio than at the lower ones.

Hygiene measures like hand-washing and physical distancing did not significantly affect the results, researchers said.

“The results of the model illustrate that the more students in a classroom, the more likely one of them will become infected, and therefore the more likely the classroom is to be closed,” Bauch said in the press release.

The school notes that the study has not yet been peer-reviewed, but has been released as part of the university’s commitment to fighting COVID-19. It has been submitted for peer review and publication.

US schools covid
Desks are spaced six feet apart, temperature checks are routine and students lunch together in small groups. (Paul Hennessy/NurPhotoGetty Images)

ARE SMALLER CLASS SIZES REALISTIC?

Is it too late to achieve lower class sizes in under three weeks? The chair of Ontario’s largest school board doesn’t think so.

Toronto District School Board Chair Alexander Brown said Friday that he is “confident” that there will be enough space to accommodate smaller class sizes in September.

If 100 per cent of students return to class in-person in the fall, there would be a shortage of 71 classrooms across 34 schools in that region.

Speaking with CP24 on Friday morning, Brown said that the 80 per cent threshold for returning students would be ideal, but he said that the board would still have enough space if a higher proportion of parents opt to send their children back to the classroom.

Higher attendance numbers might mean the use of alternate facilities like city-run community centres and libraries, he said.

“I am confident that we will (have enough space),” Brown said. “The mayor and the City of Toronto have already put together a list of places that are available and it is more than enough for us at this point. If we need more we could work with the city but I think we are going to do this very well.”

There have been over 41,000 cases of COVID-19 in Ontario to date, including nearly 2,800 deaths.

Elsewhere in Canada, COVID-19 cases have surged in B.C. and Alberta, complicating the changes facing students in the classroom.

With files from CP24’s Chris Fox.

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