back to school ontario

New SickKids study suggests Ontario's back-to-school plan is unsafe

Preliminary observations from a "school simulation study" conducted by The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) suggest that Ontario's plan for resuming classes amid the COVID-19 pandemic falls short — especially when it comes to physical distancing.

Between Aug. 19 an Aug. 20, researchers at SickKids staged a comprehensive simulation of the back-to-school process under the provincial government's plan for reopening schools, as released (to much criticism) on July 30.

Including more than 190 students of all ages and 15 teachers from Ontario public and elementary schools, the simulation included in-classroom learning, lunch, recess and parent/caregiver pick-up and drop-off. 

The goal was to look at the effects of physical distancing, mask use, hand hygiene and additional "health and safety measures for students and teachers returning to school during the COVID-19 pandemic."

Among other novel methods used, clinicians applied "a harmless liquid that lights up when exposed to a special light" to the hands and noses of a small group of students in each class.

The movement of this liquid around a classroom was meant to simulate the spread of infection.

Formal results from the study have yet to be released, but SickKids just unveiled a host of "preliminary observations and key learnings" from the simulated school experiment, and they're raising some concern among parents.

One of the most pertinent observations pertains to physical distancing within classrooms — something teachers critical of the Ontario government's plan have been saying won't work for months.

"The classrooms used during the simulation resembled a typical public school classroom (i.e. 32 feet by 24 feet)," reads the SickKids report.

"With these room sizes, it was not possible to maintain a two-metre distance between students and accommodate more than 12-15 students in the class even with the desks against all four walls."

Swelling classroom sizes have long been a contentious issue for teachers and parents alike. Both groups have advocated for smaller class sizes since Doug Ford took office as premier, but to no avail.

With classes back in session at many Ontario schools and a back-to-school deadline of Sept. 21 set for the rest, teachers continue to sound the alarm, but louder than ever before.

In addition to classroom structures that make physical distancing impossible, SickKids found that "there was crowding at entry points even with staggered class starts and fewer students than at most public and private schools."

The entry process also took longer than expected with screening and hand hygiene in the mix.

For younger children, masks were particularly problematic, as students were unsure of what to do with them during recess. Several needed new masks provided to them throughout the day.

SickKids said in a release on Monday that these key learnings and initial observations have been shared with school boards and public health authorities.

"As the return to school has already started, teachers across the province are likely learning, or have already learned, the same observations we made," said the study's co-principal investigator, Dr. Clyde Matava, who is a Staff Anesthesiologist and Associate Chief of Perioperative Services at SickKids.

"We hope the wide release of these initial findings will foster conversations between stakeholders to share invaluable knowledge about school safety that can only be gleaned from real-world settings."

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