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Low COVID-19 prevalence key for back-to-school safety, docs say

Dr. Kirk Leifso, Dr. Michael Derynck and Dr. Kieran Moore answer community questions on school reopening in a video shared by Kingston Frontenac, Lennox & Addington Public Health on Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2020.

Three local doctors are offering COVID-19 safety advice to families as school reopening approaches.

In a 25-minute YouTube video from Kingston Frontenac Lennox & Addington (KFL&A) Public Health, Kingston’s Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore, Dr. Michael Dernyck and Dr. Kirk Leifso answer parents’ questions on coronavirus prevention in school.

The doctors endorse a safe return to class, but also ask Kingstonians to diligently continue with existing COVID-19 precautions.

“Children are most likely to acquire coronavirus, the evidence [suggests], from infection within their home environment, from an adult household member,” said Dr. Leifso. “Everyone needs to be mindful of protecting themselves. That’s limiting their exposure to closed spaces, close contact with people outside of their family and outside of their social bubble, and crowded places.”

“If we keep coronavirus out of our community,” he added, “and limit the amount and spread within the community then we continue to keep schools a place that is as safe as possible to send our children.”

Groups including the Toronto District School Board, the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, and four Ontario teachers’ unions have raised concerns about the Provincial governments return to school plans, saying not enough has been done to limit class sizes.

“The risk [of contracting COVID-19] in South Eastern Ontario is very low,” said Dr. Moore. “We are very fortunate that our community has embraced prevention strategies and it bodes very well for our reopening of the schools for the coming school year.”

He added that residents should check public health websites regularly, to stay current on local risk levels.

‘We will see incidence of COVID-19 in classes.’

Dr. Moore confirmed the inevitability of COVID-19 cases in the classroom. “Be assured we’re working diligently with the school boards,” he said. “We’re hoping it doesn’t happen too often, but we will see incidence of COVID-19 in classes.”

The KFL&A video included a question to Dr. Moore about the process for contact tracing and communication during an outbreak in a classroom or school. He replied that KFL&A’s first course of action would be to test adults within the student’s home.

The KFL&A public video includes some details about outbreak management. However, when asked for more details, public health responded that further direction from the Ministry is still needed.

“Remember that the vast majority of the spread of this virus is in the home setting,” he said, “and we would investigate the home first, test adults in that setting and do our risk assessment. If we think there was a risk in the school setting, we would communicate with parents in that classroom and/or the school, we would set up a means to test those that we thought were at risk for the virus. We would do so in partnership with parents, the school boards and their health care providers.”

When the Kingstonist asked for further details, public health responded that, until the provincial government releases a school outbreak management document, no specifics around outbreak management in schools are available.

Dr. Moore did note in the video that the KFL&A region boasts a robust capacity for contact tracing and testing, to facilitate a fast response.

“We have been working on the ability to respond very quickly to any school-based activity with COVID-19,” he said.

Screen daily for these symptoms

Staff and students are asked to self-monitor for signs of COVID-19 every morning before attending school.

“One of the key components is on a daily basis to ask your children and yourself if you’ve got any symptoms,” Dr. Moore said.

He advised to watch for fever, cough or difficulty breathing, and less commonly laryngitis, low-grade fever, nausea, vomiting or diarrhea.

“If you have symptoms of COVID-19 you should contact your health care provider and potentially get assessed,” he said. “We want our community to maintain a high level of testing so we understand the risk of infection in the community.”

Krishna Burra, Director of the Limestone District School Board (LDSB), has said that schools are anticipating higher rates of absenteeism for staff and students alike this fall, asking everyone to err on the side of caution when symptoms present.

Mask safety: handling & storage

Dr. Leifso, an assistant professor in the department of pediatrics at Queens University and expert in infectious disease, emphasized the need for students to safely wear, handle and store their masks.

He said students should wash their hands before putting their masks on or off. They should handle them gently from the ear straps, and store them in a paper bag or a dry container at times when not in use.

He said wearing the masks on a lanyard or an eyeglass string was not a good idea. “They shoulnd’t be worn on a lanyard. They shouldn’t be tucked in under your chin or around your neck when not in use,” he said. “Keep the mask clean because a soiled and dirty mask is less effective than a clean mask.”

He also noted, based on his own experience, that children younger than grade four could safely wear and use a mask. Currently, masks are only mandatory for students in grades four and up. LDSB deferred a discussion on whether to require masks in all grades at their last meeting on Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020. The board voted to revisit the question at an upcoming meeting this week.

Protect the vulnerable by ‘stabilizing baseline health’

Going into the fall, Dr. Moore noted that any people with chronic medical conditions should touch base with their health care providers to make sure they’re baseline health has been optimized, and that they have received all available vaccinations.

The doctors also suggested that any students with asthma, who might routinely take a “holiday” from their medications during summer, resume medicating.

“They should be restarting their medications for at least a couple of weeks before we restart into the school year,” said Dr. Derynck.

Doctor’s children returning to school

Like the majority of Kingston families, Dr. Leifso revealed at the end of the video that he will send his own children back to school this September.

“As a family we’ve made the decision to send our children back to school. In our area it will be safe, or it will be as safe as it can be,” he said.

“The risk of catching coronavirus in your school is directly related to the amount of coronavirus circulating in your community. We’ve done a fantastic job at all levels, and we appreciate the leadership of the Medical Officer of Health (MOH) and his team,” as well as many other team members in the community he said.

“If we all do our part in limiting spread within the community, then we keep our children safe within their schools,” he added. “I think that’s the biggest factor that went into our decision making: our community levels are and have been so low.”

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Samantha Butler-Hassan

Samantha Butler-Hassan is a staff writer and life-long Kingston resident. She is a news junkie and mom who loves reading and exploring the community. This article has been made possible with the support of the Local Journalism Initiative.

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