Better measures are needed to reopen Quebec schools, experts say

“Right now… there are concerns that the health network cannot handle the expected increase in cases. So how will the network handle the level of transmission that we know we will see when schools reopen? ”

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With COVID-19 cases still at record levels, public health experts fear Quebec has not made the necessary adjustments to reopen schools safely next week.

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And with the province’s hospital network on the verge of being overwhelmed, they say, more measures are urgently needed in schools to limit the impact the reopening will have on transmission.

“Right now, even with the schools closed, there is concern that the health network cannot handle the expected increase in cases,” said Dr. Simona Bignami, professor at the University of Montreal who studied transmission in schools during previous waves.

“So how will the network handle the level of transmission that we know we’ll see when the schools reopen?” “

Given the increase in the number of cases and hospitalizations in recent weeks, Quebec has delayed the return to in-person learning for most elementary and secondary students until next Monday, the 17th. January.

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On Tuesday, Prime Minister François Legault said his goal is still to see students back in class as soon as possible. Luc Boileau, new acting director of public health, for his part indicated that he will assess the situation and intends to make a final decision by Thursday.

Last week, Education Minister Jean-François Roberge said the province would prepare for the reopening by distributing more rapid tests to elementary schools – a total of 7.2 million by February – and by providing more masks for students and staff. Some 50,000 carbon dioxide detectors will also be installed in classrooms to help assess ventilation levels.

But since then, pressure has grown on the government – from unions, teachers and parents – to either postpone the reopening or do more to address some of the problems that have made schools prone to epidemics.

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In an open letter published in La Presse on Tuesday, more than a dozen doctors said the government must implement a clear plan to manage the risks posed by the reopening.

While they all agree that the children should return to class as soon as possible, for the well-being of the students and their parents, they said this could not be done in a way that would risk making it more burdensome. the hospital network.

The letter highlights the fact that before the government decided to close schools, they accounted for about half of all COVID-19 outbreaks in December.

And although children are less likely to develop severe symptoms, the risk should not be overlooked. Vaccination in young children has slowed in recent weeks, with first dose coverage of just 58%, and high school students are still not eligible for booster shots.

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For a safe reopening, the letter calls for systematic screening of students through rapid testing, allowing school staff to wear N95 masks if they wish, and improving ventilation and air filtration in schools. schools that need it.

In an interview on Tuesday, one of the letter’s authors said she believes Quebec shouldn’t reopen schools next week if the province can’t commit to at least some of the changes to the advance.

“Students would return to school under the same conditions as before the holiday break, when 50% of outbreaks were in schools when it was mainly the Delta variant,” said Dr. Nathalie Grandvaux from the CHUM Research Center.

“There is no reason to believe it will not be worse with the Omicron variant,” added Grandvaux. “And the big difference is how much worse the health network is now. “

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To date, although it has been disputed over the issue, Quebec has not recommended that schools add air purifiers to classrooms or that school staff should wear N95 masks at work.

Last year, a panel of experts the provincial government appointed to examine the use of air purifiers concluded that there was no evidence that the machines limited transmission and could cause a false sense of security.

For Dr. Jose-Luis Jimenez, a professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder who studies disease transmission, Quebec’s position on the issue goes against what we know about how COVID-19 is airborne.

Jimenez said N95 masks and air purifiers, or air purifiers, have been proven to work in a layered approach and would be useful tools to add to schools in Quebec.

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He believes schools can be safely opened if the right measures are in place, including focusing on ventilation and making sure students are careful when their masks are removed during lunchtime.

But what if poorly ventilated schools reopen without additional measures and precautions?

“At this point, how do you put that – you almost almost grow Omicron,” Jimenez said. “You are creating conditions in which a lot of children are going to be infected.”

jfeith@postmedia.com

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