OTTAWA -- Three weeks before the new school year is set to begin, an epidemiologist at the University of Ottawa says it's "relatively safe" right now to open schools in September.

However, Dr. Raywat Deonandan warns schools have a "big potential to spark a second wave" of COVID-19 cases in Ottawa and across Ontario this fall and winter.

Preliminary results of fall attendance surveys at school boards across Ontario shows about a quarter of families plan to keep their children at home for online learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The survey was published by the Toronto Star.

Appearing on CTV News at Six, CTV News anchor Stefan Keyes asked Dr. Deonandan if the concerns of parents are justified.

"Well yes and no. It's justified in the sense that we don't know what the situation will be like come the first week of September when all of this will matter," said Dr. Deonandan during the interview Saturday evening.

"But no, in the sense that we've done everything we can to prepare, we could do a bit more. Given the current case load in the community, I think right now it's relatively safe, but things can change any day now."

Ottawa Public Health reported 11 new cases of COVID-19 on Saturday. There are currently 118 active cases of COVID-19 in Ottawa.

"I keep saying that the most important way to keep schools safe is to drive the case load in the community as low as possible," said Dr. Deonandan.

"Right now it's pretty low, but we have to keep doing our job so come school opening in September those numbers better be low then as well."

Earlier this week, Medical Officer of Health Dr. Vera Etches warned parents that there will be cases of COVID-19 in schools this fall.

Anchor Stefan Keyes asked Dr. Deonandan if assurances could be offered to families that their kids will be safe in school in September.

"There is an element of a gamble here. However, we should expect a couple of cases to occur in schools as they open up, that should not warrant any sort of panic," said Dr. Deonandan.

"The second half of that message should be if a case does occur, has public health descended on that case with sufficient force to isolate it, and to quarantine and prevent it from becoming an outbreak. As the school year unfolds, a couple of cases here and there should not cause us undue concern. It's the response that matters."

Both the Ottawa Carleton District School Board and Ottawa Catholic School Board have said they are spending the weekend reviewing the Back to School plans, including the plans for online learning.

Dr. Deonandan said he'd like to see school boards and the Ontario Government take steps to further protect students and teachers in classes, including:

  • More distancing in classrooms
  • Smaller class sizes, "which means a lower student to teacher ratio," said Dr. Deonandan
  • Better commitment to ventilation and filtration systems
  • Protocols for opening windows if weather permits
  • Opportunity for outdoor classes
  • Better plan for transportation

Second wave of COVID-19

CTV News at Six anchor Stefan Keyes asked Dr. Deonandan if schools have the biggest potential to spark a second wave of COVID-19 this fall.

"Schools have a big potential to spark a second wave because of the sheer numbers of people gathering in small areas and because of the fact that children have a tendency to be asymptomatic carriers," said Dr. Deonandan Saturday evening.

"So they can take it home and cause outbreaks and clusters of cases that would otherwise not have happened or be detected, so we have to be quite vigilant as the season unfolds."