COVID-19 in Ontario: Schools should 'never close again' as we move into 'post-pandemic mindset', infectious disease expert urges

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With in-person learning resuming in schools across Ontario next week, one infectious disease expert is stressing that reopening schools is certainly a reasonable step.

“I think it's easy to lose sight of all the other things that go to the wayside when kids are out of school,” Dr. Sumon Chakrabarti told Yahoo Canada. “Say hospital workers, they're essential workers and they have kids, so all of a sudden, you have people having to stay home to look after the kids, it becomes a much more difficult situation, it has a ripple effect in the community.”

“Let's not forget kids’ social development, language development… So I think that the risks of disease transmission are strongly outweighed by the benefits that are afforded to kids by being in school, and that's why they shouldn't be closed in the first place. Going back is a good thing and they should never close again.”Dr. Sumon Chakrabarti, Infectious Disease expert

In terms of the risks of COVID-19 transmission in schools, Dr. Chakrabarti identified that schools are a congregate setting where children and adults interact, which can lead to transmission of the virus, possibly more transmission with the Omicron variant in particular, but schools generally have been “safe” for the last two years.

A woman wearing a face mask waits outside a COVID-19 testing site in Toronto, Canada, on Jan. 8, 2022. Canada reported 30,435 new COVID-19 cases Saturday morning, raising its national total to 2,512,577 with 30,742 deaths, according to local media CTV. (Photo by Zou Zheng/Xinhua via Getty Images)
A woman wearing a face mask waits outside a COVID-19 testing site in Toronto, Canada, on Jan. 8, 2022. Canada reported 30,435 new COVID-19 cases Saturday morning, raising its national total to 2,512,577 with 30,742 deaths, according to local media CTV. (Photo by Zou Zheng/Xinhua via Getty Images)

Changes to testing strategy could still work

With Ontario also having significantly changed its testing strategy in recent weeks to only the symptomatic, highest risk individuals in our community, Dr. Chakrabarti commented that indicators like percent positivity in testing, even with fewer people being tested, can be effective in assessing the current state of this wave of the pandemic.

“If you're getting a whole bunch of higher risk people that we're testing now and you're seeing that the percent positivity is significantly dropping,...that's an indication things are getting better,” he said. “In pre-pandemic times, what we did with influenza, for example, we didn't test people in the community but we did have an idea of what was happening by some surveillance and also looking at the cases in the hospital.”

“So even though we don't have the same level of detection that we did, let's say a month ago, we still have a level of detection that's there. But the big thing for us to remember is that in the grand scheme of things, you don't need to know what's happening to say, a healthy 35-year-old in the community who gets essentially a cold, and that's going to be a bit of an adjustment because we've been doing all this low risk testing for so long.”

People with a thick coats line up to enter a COVID-19 vaccination clinic in Toronto, Canada, on Jan. 3, 2022. The City of Toronto issued an extreme cold weather alert on Monday. (Photo by Zou Zheng/Xinhua via Getty Images)
People with a thick coats line up to enter a COVID-19 vaccination clinic in Toronto, Canada, on Jan. 3, 2022. The City of Toronto issued an extreme cold weather alert on Monday. (Photo by Zou Zheng/Xinhua via Getty Images)

When will the COVID-19 pandemic be over?

Dr. Chakrabarti identified that we are moving into a “post-pandemic mindset” and in terms of when the pandemic will be “over,” there will be a low amount of community transmission, but that does not have to be zero and we could still see spikes in cases in the wintertime.

He added that there also needs to be a sociopolitical change and a shift to take the focus off of dashboards of daily case data, and even hospitalizations, particularly for the general public.

“That information will still be available, but it's just not going to be front and centre in our consciousness,” Dr. Chakrabarti said.

“Part of this is going to be the numbers, but part of this is going to be kind of changing our mindset and our perspective, and a lot of that's going to have to be through good communication.”

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