October 26, 2020

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John Pritchard School COVID outbreak raises legitimate questions about Manitoba's back-to-school preparations

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In a recent issue of the New York Times, Cynthia Nixon — one of the former stars of Sex and the City who aspires to be a politician — compared the COVID-19 protocols being applied to the set of a TV show she is working on and those governing her child's public school.

Nixon reported that on set, masks are mandatory. Crew and production staff were tested before shooting started and, after that, one to three times per week. Actors, who have to remove their masks, would be tested every day. The production company upgraded ventilation equipment and acquired air purifiers.

Nixon contrasted that with preparations at her son's school, where building inspections to test ventilation and other structural issues have been completed on only a fraction of the 1,700 public schools in New York City. Often, she said she was told, ventilation systems were being tested by holding a yardstick with a piece of toilet paper attached near the opening of an air duct.

"If city and state leaders cared half as much about our children as they do about television actors, we'd be raising revenue and giving our schools the funding needed to reopen safely," she wrote.

Not enough is being done to ensure schools in New York are safe, says Cynthia Nixon . (Jason DeCrow / The Associated Press files)

CP

Not enough is being done to ensure schools in New York are safe, says Cynthia Nixon . (Jason DeCrow / The Associated Press files)

There are a couple of obvious weaknesses in Nixon's argument. First and foremost, it is much easier and cost-effective to provide higher-level COVID-19 protection in a single location with maybe 100 people; much harder to apply those same standards to an entire public school system with millions of students in thousands of locations.

However, her analysis highlights a pressing concern: just about everywhere where governments are trying to resume in-person public education, we're not getting the protection we need. We're getting the protection that we think we can afford.

That is not to downplay the limits of government's fiscal capacity. Let's agree that no large school system — including Manitoba’s, with its 220,000 students — can afford the same protective measures being used in the entertainment industry or professional sports.

Still, this week, the fragility of Manitoba's back-to-school plan was clearly on display at John Pritchard School in North Kildonan, where there have been seven positive tests.

If we accept this one incident as proof that we need to do more, what would it look like?

Just about everywhere where governments are trying to resume in–person public education, we're not getting the protection we need. We're getting the protection that we think we can afford.

School reopening plans around the world have three core elements: mandatory mask use, as much social distancing as possible and increased frequency of testing. While Manitoba's protocols require masks for students from Grade 4 to Grade 12 when physical distancing of two metres isn't possible (unless they have a medical condition), the John Pritchard outbreak raises doubts about their effectiveness.

NDP Leader Wab Kinew has suggested that class sizes be reduced, an idea that would require hiring additional teachers and aides. However, Kinew's idea would likely not stop an outbreak such as the one at John Pritchard; it might only shrink the size of the outbreak.

As for testing, well, that's another matter altogether.

Six months into the pandemic, Manitoba's testing infrastructure is still lacking. And we're not alone; just about every major city in every country around the world is not doing enough tests, quickly enough, to allow something as ambitious as school reopening.

We need a system where a test can be accessed and results reported on a next-day basis. People without the virus need to be able to resume teaching or attend classes as soon as possible; confirmed positive cases need to be reported quickly so contacts can be traced.

Simply put, we don’t have that capacity yet, as evidenced in Winnipeg this week, where sites were overrun by people seeking tests in the wake of reports of possible exposures in schools, restaurants and stores. Some people were actually turned away while others endured many hours in line. The province has promised to increase capacity but several days after the existing test sites were overrun, we're still waiting.

Six months into the pandemic, Manitoba's testing infrastructure is still lacking. And we're not alone; just about every major city in every country around the world is not doing enough tests, quickly enough, to allow something as ambitious as school reopening.

A rapid COVID-19 test like the ones approved for use in the United States, which promise results in as little as 15 minutes, could be part of the solution. To date, however, Ottawa will not approve them for use in Canada, concerned the technology is not sensitive enough to detect small levels of COVID-19, increasing the likelihood of false negatives.

If we assume that Ottawa is right to be cautious about rapid tests, and it remains hard to quickly ramp up capacity of the existing testing system, then we might have to face an inconvenient truth: we reopened too early.

Cities such as Chicago and Los Angeles have decided to continue virtual education until they can develop a plan to safely reopen schools. Obviously aware of some of the concerns Nixon was voicing, New York has decided to delay its reopening plan, staggering start dates based on age. Similar scenarios are unfolding across Canada.

Had school reopening in Manitoba been pushed back even one month, one wonders what additional protective measures could have been put in place. The province could have expanded testing capacity pre-emptively to ensure students and staff could get results faster. It would have had more time to assess facilities and ventilation systems.

Reopening schools is not a mistake. But insisting on reopening schools on what is a pre-pandemic schedule could turn out to be a colossal mistake in judgment.

dan.lett@freepress.mb.ca

Dan Lett

Dan Lett
Columnist

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.

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