School-age children are making up a significant proportion of new COVID-19 cases in Manitoba, but changes to the pandemic response in classrooms are still being measured against the impacts of going remote.

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School-age children are making up a significant proportion of new COVID-19 cases in Manitoba, but changes to the pandemic response in classrooms are still being measured against the impacts of going remote.

Dr. Brent Roussin said Wednesday public health has always approached schools as "the last thing to close, first to open," with his office currently focused on bringing down community transmission through existing, and soon to be tightened, restrictions.

"We just know that there’s a huge impact on sending kids home from school. So we have to balance that," the chief provincial public health officer said in response to questions about the high number of infections in children, particularly in regions where vaccine uptake is low.

"We have to have measures in place to ensure we’re limiting transmission in any scenario. We know with this virus, if we see high transmission anywhere, it will soon be everywhere."

Public health has always approached schools as the last thing to close, first to open, says Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba's chief public health officer. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press files)

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Public health has always approached schools as the last thing to close, first to open, says Dr. Brent Roussin, Manitoba's chief public health officer. (John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press files)

In a two-week period ending Nov. 7, there have been 262 cases among students across 117 schools, or about 15 per cent of all cases reported during that time. Since school resumed in September, there have been 788 cases among pupils. The province also recently set a new record for declared outbreaks, with 12 announced so far this academic year.

"We do see a significant proportion of the cases now being in those younger age groups," Roussin said. "We don’t see a lot of severe outcomes, which is good, but we know they’re part of transmission chains and so they transmit to people who could be at a lot of risk."

The high number of cases found among students is indicative of increased spread of the virus in the community, particularly in the Southern Health region, Roussin said, though he acknowledged transmission has occurred in schools at lesser levels.

Parents, caregivers, teachers and coaches can expect to hear about new vaccination mandates and further restrictions to address spread among unvaccinated children, and in the community, "shortly," Roussin said.

The provincial government hopes to address the issue of rising COVID-19 cases before the end of the week, Health Minister Audrey Gordon said.

Roussin was also pressed on why additional measures, such as reduced class size, have yet to be introduced given the spike in cases in some southern Manitoba communities.

"If we reduce the number of people in a class, really, that's going to require that blended learning, so there is a negative effect. There are health impacts to children when we take them out of school, and so we have to balance that with what we see with the transmission of COVID," he said.

The high number of cases among students is indicative of increased spread of the virus in the community, particularly in the Southern Health region, Roussin says. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press files)

The high number of cases among students is indicative of increased spread of the virus in the community, particularly in the Southern Health region, Roussin says. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press files)

"Those aren’t easy decisions and they can’t just be based on an absolute number of cases that we see."

Rapid testing for asymptomatic students — a measure some parents and teachers have called for — could be a tool to help keep children in class, but it’s not the only response needed at this time, Roussin said.

"What we really need to do is reduce that community transmission," he said, adding infections in children are often being spread at home with the first household member bringing in the virus from gatherings in the community.

"At this point with contact tracing, it’s difficult to know precisely where people are acquiring it. In schools, we have such a controlled scenario there that we’re able to have a pretty good (judgment) on whether there’s transmission occurring there or not."

Public health is also aware of students being absent from class without a positive COVID-19 test, indicating symptomatic children may not be going for testing, Roussin said.

"That impairs public health's ability to be able to manage things," he said.

Manitoba Teachers’ Society president James Bedford said while he can’t speculate on potential changes to health orders, the "best place for students is in a physically safe classroom with their teachers."

"Throughout the pandemic, MTS has and will continue to be guided by public health, with the well-being of school staff and students as our highest priority," Bedford said in a statement.

Taking children out of school isn't an easy decision, Roussin says. (Jessica Lee / Winnipeg Free Press files)

JESSICA LEE/WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Taking children out of school isn't an easy decision, Roussin says. (Jessica Lee / Winnipeg Free Press files)

"We will continue to work with public health officials to ensure that learning takes place in a manner that ensures the safety and security of our school communities."

Education Minister Cliff Cullen said his department continues to work with public health officials and schools to monitor the pandemic situation and "focus efforts to keep schools safe and open."

"Patient numbers in Manitoba hospitals indicate this is becoming a pandemic of the unvaccinated, so it is imperative that those around people under the age of 12 take the actions necessary to defend our children, such as getting vaccinated if you’re eligible, following public health orders and practicing the fundamentals," Cullen said in a statement to the Free Press.

"School cases follow the same trend as those in surrounding community, so it is not unexpected to see cases in schools when community cases rise."

— with files from Carol Sanders

danielle.dasilva@freepress.mb.ca

Danielle Da Silva

Danielle Da Silva
Reporter

Danielle Da Silva is a general assignment reporter.