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COVID-19 is spreading faster than last year among students and staff. Could schools be closed by Thanksgiving?

COVID-19 is spreading faster than last year among students and staff. Could schools be closed by Thanksgiving?
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Ontario has confirmed more than 300 COVID-19 cases early into the school year — a number that one expert says indicates the virus is spreading faster than last year and is raising the alarm about school closures as early as Thanksgiving.

Ahmed Al-Jaishi, an epidemiologist and postdoctorate fellow at the Ottawa Health Research Institute, said he was shocked to see 328 confirmed cases in students and staff reported when the province released its initial set of data Tuesday.

“I don’t know what I was expecting,” Al-Jaishi said. “But my gut reaction was, ‘that’s a big number.’ ”

Based on his research, Al-Jaishi said community transmission for people younger than 20 years old is six times higher compared to last year. This year, Al Jaishi found that there are 60 COVID-19 cases per million for people younger than 20 years old. The number was 10 cases per million last year.

The provincial data dating back to Aug. 23 and released Tuesday shows that out of the 4,844 schools being tracked in the province, 218 schools — or about 5 per cent — have confirmed staff or student cases. At this time last year, there were fewer than 30 confirmed cases in schools, according to archived data.

Avenue Road Public School in Cambridge and David Maxwell Public School in Windsor both have the highest, with each school having eight total cases.

According to provincial data, there are 14 COVID-19 cases at 13 schools in Toronto, the majority in students.

École élémentaire La Mosaïque in East York has the highest out of all Toronto schools with two confirmed cases. The twelve remaining Toronto schools each have one case.

Toronto Public Health, meanwhile, is . The province’s numbers are for confirmed cases only and don’t specify the source of infection.

They also may lag other reporting. For example, Ontario specifically warns that if there are any discrepancies between its data and data from a public health unit, then public health unit data should be regarded as the most up-to-date numbers.

Last week, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore said that although people should expect some COVID-19 activity during the school year, schools are relatively safe . Moore cited federal data showing that 87 per cent of students who got COVID-19 during the school year contracted it from outside school.

Al-Jaishi has independently monitored Ontario school case counts since last September.

Because the school year just started, most of these cases are a result community transmission rather than school transmissions, he says.

“If cases are increasing in schools, we know that cases will increase in the community, just because kids don’t live in silos — they interact with family members, friends and other community members,” Al-Jaishi said. “I think (school case counts) are an important indicator of what is going to happen in the community.”

Though the province is , especially with vaccination more widespread, Al Jaishi isn’t confident that this school year will run smoothly amidst the ongoing pandemic.

“I feel like right now we’re set up to fail and we’re set up to see school closures early on, potentially Thanksgiving or more likely by Christmas,” Al-Jaishi said. “I hope that doesn’t happen, but if nothing changes, that’s where I personally see it going.”

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