Risk and reward from reopening schools should be weighed carefully, says Ottawa epidemiologist
OTTAWA -- An Ottawa epidemiologist says he does not believe the reward of reopening Ontario schools for the last few weeks of the school year outweighs the risks.
In a letter to Premier Doug Ford, released Saturday morning, Ontario's Science Advisory Table is advising that schools in Ontario can reopen safely on a regional basis. It came in response to a letter from Ford to medical experts and other stakeholders asking for advice on reopening schools.
Other signatories to the letter include the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO) and other pediatric hospitals, the Ontario Medical Association, and the Council of Medical Officers of Health.
In a brief Twitter thread, CHEO CEO Alex Munter said if schools were to reopen, it would make sense to keep other restrictions in place to limit community transmission.
"The biggest risk to schools is COVID-19 transmission in their communities," Munter wrote. "(Ottawa Public Health) reported in April that 86 per cent of school cases acquired COVID-19 outside of school."
Ottawa's medical officer of health, Dr. Vera Etches, says she supports reopening schools cautiously, adding that Ottawa Public Health is prepared to monitor COVID-19 in the school setting should in-person classes resume.
The Science Advisory Table says that schools that do reopen should maintain vigorous public health measures to limit the spread of the virus; however, it does stress that the B.1.617.2 variant presents a "significant unknown" for the province.
"Even as we reopen schools, we must do all that we can to reduce the transmission of the virus outside of schools," the letter says.
Speaking on Newstalk 580 CFRA's "CFRA Live with Andrew Pinsent", epidemiologist Dr. Raywat Deonandan, an associate professor at the University of Ottawa, said he believes the province should take a close look at the risks and the rewards of reopening schools.
"What's the reward for reopening schools? You get two or three weeks of in-class learning, some important respite for parents, and some additional mental health capacity for children. That's not nothing, but there will be risk," he said.
"We risk jeopardizing everything. We've got a real shot, now, of crushing this epidemic locally; we've got a real shot of opening things up and never closing them ever again," he added. "We have this threat of this variant, B.1.617.2, and we can get ahead of that if we keep things restricted for awhile."
Deonandan said he believes the responsible thing to do would be to err on the side of caution and keep schools closed for the rest of the school year.
He is not alone in his dissent of the science table's recommendation. A prominent member of the advisory committee, Dr. David Fisman, also stated publicly that he disagrees with the decision.
"We have an end to the pandemic in our reach in Ontario," Fisman said on Twitter. "We may get away with this gamble, or may not. In my view gambling on increasing ICU admissions and accelerated b1617 strain replacement: not worth it."
Deonandan said the question of whether children are better of in schools is easy to answer.
"Kids are better off in school; no question," he said.
But the question of whether schools accelerate the pandemic is one that he believes is being avoided.
"Will this prolong the pandemic? That, really, is the management question we have to ask and my answer is yes, it will probably prolong the pandemic," he said.
The Science Advisory Table said in its letter Saturday that their modelling suggests any increase in COVID-19 cases as a result of reopening schools would be "small." The group previously said it projected an increase in daily case counts of six to 11 per cent if schools reopened.
"Most public health units believe that they can mitigate and manage those increases in their communities," the letter said.
Ford, however, has said, in his letter to medical experts and teachers' unions, that his government was shown modelling that would suggest daily case counts could rise to between 2,000 and 4,000 a day by the end of July should students get back to class for the month of June.
Deonandan said the decision comes down to a short-term view versus a long-term view.
"The long view has to be how do we get all of society back to 100 per cent functionality as quick as we can and that means closing things down for a couple more weeks," he said.
"Eventually it comes down to a values judgment and values judgments are what politicians are paid to do," he added. "Is it erring on the side pandemic management or is it erring on the side of children's mental health and wherewithal? That's the question here. I choose the first and it's understandable if others choose the second."