Lunchtime COVID-19 transmission at Sask. high school shows weak spot in protection plan

·3 min read

A COVID-19 outbreak has been declared in the Grade 12 class at Central Collegiate in Moose Jaw, with two teens contracting the illness.

Prairie South Schools director of education Tony Baldwin said contact tracing suggests the transmission happened when the students ate lunch in a car together during their lunch break.

Baldwin said lunches have been a challenge for both high schools and elementary schools. The division has asked that students go home for lunch whenever possible and students are asked to physically distance when they do need to eat together.

But students aren't always supervised, especially high school students.

"When the kids are there with us in the building, we're able to do a little bit of controlling of what they're doing, and when they're not, they're sort of beyond our reach," Baldwin said.

Overall, Baldwin said the students have been doing a good job following the guidelines from the Saskatchewan Health Authority, but there's "the occasional hiccup," which is how he classifies the lunchtime transmission.

"I remember when I was 17, there would be quite a few lunch hours that you'd find me in my car as well, so ... my hunch would be that there wasn't any real sort of thinking that went behind that, that it just sort of happened."

Lunch a higher risk time of day

He said there is lots of room for students to spread out at lunch, so space isn't the problem. Lunch is simply a higher risk time during the day because you can't eat lunch with a mask on.

"We haven't had any cases of transmission at all anywhere in Prairie South when people have been masked," Baldwin said. "If you can think of a way for them to [eat lunch] while they were all masked up, then then that would be great. I haven't been able to think of that yet."

He said the students who were in a car together both wore masks when they were with thei respective cohorts.

"They just happened to be eating lunch with a buddy and the buddy turned out to have a positive test afterwards. So, you know, that's more bad luck than it is anything else. I don't think that the kids are doing anything wrong."

Lunches have also been a flashpoint at Saskatoon's Market Mall, which is a draw for students from Holy Cross and Walter Murray high schools, as students look for a place to eat outside of school or home.

'You're going to eat lunch with your friends'

Grade 12 student Ben Alexander agreed that lunch is a vulnerable time for students. Not only do they need to take their masks off, it's also an opportunity to socialize with friends who might not be in your cohort.

"You're going to eat lunch with your friends," Alexander said. "If they don't happen to be in the same cohort as you or the same classes, that's already spreading more contact beyond what was initially prescribed."

He said it's common for older students to go to a drive thru for lunch and eat in the car. Younger students who don't have cars will eat in the hallways, he said.

"Odds are, they're not properly social distancing six feet apart."

Alexander said students are doing a pretty good job of following the guidelines when they're in school, but are less likely to follow them outside of school.

"At the same time, you can't expect students to fully understand the long term consequences of actions," he said. "It's biologically just a proven thing that teens have less long term developmental plans than adults do."

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