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Epidemiologist echoes parents calling for reduced physical contact within learning groups

Last Updated Jan 13, 2021 at 8:40 am PDT

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An epidemiologist is calling for physical contact in school to be more closely monitored and prevented

Caroline Coljin points to high-risk activities, like singing and gym class, and says cohorts are too big

The BCCDC admits small droplets containing COVID-19 can hang in the air for short amounts of time

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) — Physical contact in schools needs to be more closely monitored and prevented, especially during high-risk activities like singing and gym class, says a Simon Fraser University mathematician and epidemiologist who has been tracking COVID-19.

Caroline Coljin says there have been instances of known transmission through small droplets that hang in the air for short amounts of time, and while it’s not technically the clinical definition of aerosolization, it needs to be taken seriously within learning groups where contact is currently allowed.

“I think that is a risk because learning groups are big, up to 60 students, for example, in elementary schools, and that’s a large number,” she explains.

“If you really wanted to design a kind of bubble, you might want it to be five or 10 but that’s just not practical, so I think what that means is we should still be trying to take some steps to curtail transmission within those groups.”

Her concerns are echoed by a parent of a Yennadon Elementary school student in Maple Ridge who kept her kids home an extra week longer than the standard winter break after seeing a video posted online of students singing closely together, many without masks.

“The first 15, 20 seconds of the video seem more in line with what you would think a Christmas concert during a pandemic would look like and then it very quickly changes to just a bunch of kids literally almost on each other’s laps,” she says.

“Like they’re they’re squished right in together, and they’re singing and looking at each other. And a lot of the kids don’t have masks on,” she says.

She says she has an elderly parent living with her and is worried her kids could pick something up on the playground where masks and distancing are also not required within learning groups.

“My daughter in high school is in gym right now. She came home one day telling me about how they were in very close contact; they were learning wrestling and
just in very close proximity with their activities. I just don’t think that that’s necessary,” she adds.

Music class safety

The pandemic has raised a lot of concerns over the safety and viability of music and physical education in schools but the value of these activities is considered high, and essential to students’ mental health.

The statement from the Ministry of Health says “Singing in groups can be a safe activity but individuals from separate learning groups should stay 2 metres apart. Other hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette principles apply,” as per guidelines posted to the BCCDC website.

The BC Music Educators’ Association and the Coalition for Music Education in British Columbia developed their own set of recommendations for music in schools in an attempt to help keep staff and students safe.

The document includes feedback from students about why they want to continue, despite the risks.

“I really miss music. I need to get back to school so I can get back to music. It’s hard to just do academics without the joy music brings,” says one child.

“If I had not joined music I believe I would still need tons of help in classes as I started out in school with a bit of a learning disability and constantly needed help, though now I am able to focus and don’t use the help as much as I don’t need it anymore,” says another.

Coljin believes there are ways to make the current learning conditions much safer, including investing in increased ventilation in schools and mandating physical distancing to cut down on unnecessary contact, even within cohorts.

“We shouldn’t just have the attitude that ‘Okay, well, that’s a group of 60 and once there’s an exposure, everybody’s exposed,” she says.

“We don’t send that whole learning group home to isolate. We try to identify close contacts … so we want that number of close contacts to be small. That suggests that limiting the numbers of really close contact even within those learning groups is a good idea,” says Coljin.

Basketball and relay games worry moms

According to the administrator of the online database independently tracking COVID-19 in B.C., Kathy Marliss, physical education has also been a big concern.

“P.E. is also really challenging because they’re usually not wearing masks and they are exerting themselves and huffing and puffing,” she says.“We do get letters, we black out that information on the exposure letters if they give us specifics about classes for privacy reasons, however, I can say that there are many letters we get where it indicates that transmission occurred in gym class,” says Marliss.

Teachers have also told her about kids sharing water bottles and food and not distancing during lunch breaks.

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Surrey Schools recently implemented new guidelines in gym and music classes following two high-profile outbreaks at Cambridge Elementary (where a music teacher landed in ICU with COVID-19) and Earl Marriott Secondary, where a large outbreak that stemmed from a P.E. class infecting around 50 people.

“Physical education is an important component of learning for so many students, and we are committed to safely continuing these classes during the pandemic. Preventing infection in this setting involves layers of protection including staying within cohorts, cleaning equipment after use, reducing the number of people inside a closed space, maintaining distance, and being outdoors when weather permits,” says the school district in an email.

Additional health and safety protocols expected in music classes include washing or sanitizing hands before and after class, no sharing of instruments, accessories or microphones and singing only within the same learning group among other measures.

Current guidelines allow students from different cohorts to sing and play music together, so long as they are two metres apart