P.E.I.'s approach for back-to-school plan may be 'a little overconfident,' epidemiologist says

·3 min read
Last school year, masks were mandatory when moving around inside schools and on school buses.  (Jane Robertson/CBC - image credit)
Last school year, masks were mandatory when moving around inside schools and on school buses. (Jane Robertson/CBC - image credit)

According to one epidemiologist, Prince Edward Island's back-to-school plans ignore the effect the COVID-19 delta variant has had across the world.

Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of Toronto, said while P.E.I. has done "an amazing job" handling the first three waves of the pandemic, it doesn't mean the fourth wave will be a similar situation.

"Without having actually seen up close how bad things can get, it's possible to become a little overconfident," he said.

"The delta variant has wreaked havoc among kids in the United States and elsewhere where restrictions have come up. So to have a plan that says kids don't need to wear masks in school because we think community transmission is low, that ignores the effect that the delta variant has had elsewhere."

The P.E.I. government released its back-to-school plan on Monday, about two weeks before school begins in September.

The plan, posted to the government website, offers guidance that changes depending on whether the Island is in a "low risk" or "elevated-risk" scenario when it comes to COVID-19 transmission. The document has already been criticized by some local groups and parents for not mandating masks and cohorts.

Ventilation 'needs to be tackled seriously'

Furness said two key changes he would recommend to the plan would be to improve ventilation in schools and mandate mask wearing.

CBC
CBC

The plan mentioned improvements should be made to ventilation systems in schools that currently do not meet standards. But Furness said that's not enough.

"The existing standard is not OK," he said.

"Ventilation needs to be tackled and it needs to be tackled seriously, really seriously and with great urgency, and you need to exceed regulations."

Furness said kids and adults should not share air indoors or on school buses without wearing masks "under any circumstances."

"If it were up to me, I would have kids wearing masks until they're vaccinated," he said.

The province's plan recommended mask wearing for school personnel who aren't fully vaccinated. It also suggested masks be worn when transitioning through a school building, if physical distancing isn't possible in classrooms from kindergarten to grade 6, and on school buses until at least October.

Mandatory vaccination

Furness said he doesn't believe vaccines should be mandatory for school staff. Rather, teachers could be told if they don't get vaccinated, they won't be allowed to interact with students and will be employed in another capacity.

Can you handle what's happened in the United States? What's going to happen if you need to put kids on ventilators and you can't? — Colin Furness, epidemiologist

"The discourse, unfortunately, has been black and white: either you force vaccination or you don't," he said.

Coming to some middle ground to encourage all teachers to get vaccinated is the "best from a moral standpoint, as well as from the public health safety standpoint," Furness said.

Ultimately, Furness said with thousands of unvaccinated children under 12 on P.E.I., the province would be in a difficult situation if outbreaks occurred.

"How many pediatric ICU beds do you have? That's the really important question. Can you handle what's happened in the United States? What's going to happen if you need to put kids on ventilators and you can't?" Furness said.

"If delta behaves in the same way that it has elsewhere, it's concerning. No question."

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