Eight cases of COVID-19 have now been identified in Saskatchewan schools — the latest was found earlier this week at Valley Manor Elementary School in Martensville, Sask.
However, a professor in the department of community health and epidemiology at the University of Saskatchewan, says this was to be expected as children returned to their classrooms this fall.
“I’m certainly not surprised,” said Dr. Cory Neudorf. “We’ve known right from the start that this pandemic tends to affect adults and older people more in terms of symptoms. And since a lot of the testing has been focused on people with symptoms and those wanting to go back to work, we haven’t had as much uptake in testing from children.
“Now that we’re doing a little more testing in that age group, we expect to be finding a certain number of positives, both in terms of those who may have had mild symptoms and those with no symptoms at all.”
Janine Muyres’ three children attend City Park School in Saskatoon. For her, the transition to distance learning last winter was “kind of like having labour — when you’re in it, it’s hell, and when you’re out, you think ,’Well, that wasn’t so bad.'”
When Muyres found out her children could go back to their classrooms this fall, she was relieved to know that distance learning was off the table, at least for now.
“I remember telling my coworkers, ‘I don’t care if the kids have to wear a HAZMAT suit, they’re going back to school,’ she said.
“I’d been hanging on all summer with my fingers crossed, thinking ‘It’s got to go back, because I can’t do that to my kids again. I can’t put them through that.’
“I was just so busy with work. I couldn’t watch over them and make sure their assignments were getting done.”
With cold and flu season on the horizon, as well as fall allergies to contend with, Neudorf urged parents to take their children for flu shots as soon as possible and exercise caution when sending them to school with any health symptoms in the months ahead.
“I can imagine it’s going to get very frustrating to have mild symptoms leading to multiple tests being done and disruptions to work and family life,” he said. “This is the short-term reality we’re in this year.
“In the meantime, we do what we can with physical distancing, mask wearing, washing hands, using sanitizer and limiting your close circle of who you’re interacting with.”
For Neudorf, a case of COVID-19 in a school community can be a sign for administrators and public health officials to review their existing policies and question what could be done differently going forward.
“Whenever we see cases in a school, that’s a chance to re-look and ask if there is anything we could have done differently in terms of screening, keeping kids home when they’re sick … and contact tracing,” he said.
“Every time there’s a case or a cluster, it’s time to look at that in the context of that school and say, is there anything we could be doing differently here? We’re essentially learning as we go.”
Patrick Maze, president of the Saskatchewan Teachers Federation, is concerned about how quickly teachers are being asked to change on a dime as the school year progresses.
“From what I’m hearing, lots of teachers are kind of hanging by a thread and hoping that they can get through day to day at this point,” he said. “It is an unprecedentedly stressful time.
“I have lots of members who have been told — this late into the month already — that they’re changing their positions, switching subjects or going to online learning. And we’re asking that teachers be patient and roll with the punches, but at some point, we get to the fact that it’s very difficult to change what you teach this late into September.”
Maze has commended school faculty and staff for their thorough implementation of COVID safety protocols, but believes large class sizes and after-school activities may still fuel in-school transmission.
“Whether it’s practices or different events in the community, it’s a bit frustrating, because I know that schools have put in a tremendous amount of work to cohort students … and do block scheduling,” he said. “And that will all come undone if we continue to try to run things as normal in the evenings, as far as clubs and activities and events. So we’re hoping that the community can also do its part in order to help us keep the measures that have been put in place in schools to keep everyone safe.”
As for Muyres, she is working on sending her children out the door in the morning with a realistic perspective on this unique school year.
“I tell my kids, we’re not going to live in fear,” she said.
“We’re not going to let this consume our life, and nobody’s going to develop anxiety over this. This is here, it’s happening right now, here’s what you can do to prevent it. And we’re just going to go ahead until otherwise directed by health officials.”