Coronavirus: Doctors weigh in on extended school closures in southern Ontario

Schools across southern Ontario will remain closed until at least Jan. 25 and an emergency physician in Toronto says parents should consider keeping their children at home even longer.

“Sending your kids now is dangerous to you, dangerous to your older relatives, and dangerous a little less to the kids,” said Dr. Kashif Pirzada.

In the emergency room where Pirzada works, he said it is the parents and grandparents of young COVID-19 patients who are coming in needing urgent care.

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“Children live with parents and they often live with grandparents .. those older parents and grandparents are at extreme risk to COVID-19 and they’re not going to be spared when an infection goes through the school,” he said.

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Pirzada said he is concerned about the availability of hospital beds should a child need to be admitted.

“One thing that worries us is that we have no space in the hospitals,” he pointed out.

“We’re starting to use pediatric spaces for adult patients so now if schools reopen and a lot of kids get sick there aren’t the hospital beds for them if we need to admit them because they’re occupied by adults with COVID.”

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Pirzada, a father of two young children, acknowledged he too is at his “wit’s end” balancing work and home, but said “this is probably the worst few months of the pandemic we’ll see.”

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“We need time to cool things down and really observe to see how this thing is going,” he said.

“We know that the U.K. variant is coming and it’s very very contagious and can we take the risk and let numbers explode by reopening schools?”

Knowing how challenging school closures are for working parents, Pirzada pointed to places like Melbourne and Australia where schools were “opened for essential workers and those who needed the support.”

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“Those parents that can have the option to keep their kids home should keep them home until numbers get better and until we can vaccinate more people hopefully,” he added.

Prior to the Ford government announcement on Thursday announcing an extension of virtual learning for most Ontario students, Dr. Douglas Mack was one of eight doctors who signed an open letter urging the province to “reopen elementary schools on Jan. 11 and secondary schools on Jan. 25 for in-person instruction.”

Mack, a pediatric clinical immunologist with McMaster University, said he too is concerned about the well-being of children in Ontario, but added he believes they are safe in school.

“What is happening in the schools is actually really, really reassuring,” he said.

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“Unfortunately lockdowns and school closures may have significant effects on children.”

Mack said virtual classrooms are “not an effective substitute for in-person education” and as a result, he said he is seeing deficiencies among children.

“For example, if they are behind in reading by Grade 3, 75 per cent of these kids are not ever going to catch up and that has effects that will continue to compound for years down the road,” he said.

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Mack said, in no uncertain terms, children are “struggling.”

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“The mental health component, the physical activity component, the increase in screen time, eating habits, lack of social support, suicidality, eating disorders, these are significant canaries in the coal mine that we are missing something with these kids,” he pointed out.

Mack and Pirzada both noted that children are at low risk of developing significant symptoms due to COVID-19.

For Pirzada, however, it’s the risk the virus poses to the families of these children that is concerning.

“Kids might be fine, they rarely get very sick with COVID, but you can’t say the same about their parents and grandparents and that’s what we’re seeing in the hospital,” he said.

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