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Back to school: When sniffles mean COVID-19 tests, self-isolation; how families are coping

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TORONTO —
The start of school is typically a stressful time for families, but none more so than this year as families try to adjust to a new reality in which even the slightest sniffle or minor headache could mean COVID-19 tests, days of isolation, and interruptions to education and work.

Now that schools and daycares across the country have reopened and welcomed students back, coronavirus cases numbers have crept back up in certain regions, forcing children and staff to return home to get tested for the virus and self-isolate.

In some cases, entire schools have shut down in response to rising case counts, such as in Montreal where one private high school, Herzliah High School, suspended in-person learning for two weeks after more than a dozen students and staff tested positive for COVID-19.

While medical experts have been warning the public for months there would be a second wave of cases in the fall, the practical implications for families are only just being realized.

Dr. Andrew Morris, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Toronto and the Sinai Health system who contributed to a report by medical experts on the return to school, said public health authorities are working closely with school boards to find the right balance of teaching students while keeping them and their families safe.

“It’s really complicated. There aren’t, unfortunately, any simple fixes right now,” he told CTVNews.ca during a telephone interview on Thursday.

SYMPTOM SCARES

The confluence of coronavirus, flu, and allergies has made identifying symptoms for each a tricky task with most schools and daycares erring on the side of caution and mandating that children who exhibit any symptoms, whether it be a cough or stomach ache or runny nose, to stay home and get tested for COVID-19.

While the guidance varies across provinces and regions, generally, families have been asked to asses their children’s symptoms before taking them to school or daycare and to keep them home if there’s any sign of sickness.

“The advice in many ways hasn’t really changed,” Morris said. “Sick kids shouldn’t be going to school.”

If the child develops symptoms during the day, most schools and daycares are asking families to take them home and have them tested for coronavirus or self-isolate for two weeks before they will be allowed to return.

That was the case for Denise Faubert’s 10-year-old daughter who was sent home from her Ottawa elementary school on Monday because she had developed a headache.

“My daughter was sent home for a headache because she was dehydrated because they’re in a portable and they don’t want to drink a lot because they don’t want to go into the school to go to the bathroom,” she explained.

“We got home, literally an hour-and-a-half later, after a little Tylenol, she was fine. Like literally fine, jumping, going on the internet, going outside.”

Despite her daughter’s improvement, Faubert said she was forced to pick up her 15-year-old daughter from a nearby high school and bring her home as well. The next day, she drove her younger daughter to a testing clinic in Casselman, Ont., located 50 kilometres outside of Ottawa, for the test because the lineups in the city were too long.

On Wednesday night, Faubert said her daughter’s test results came back negative and both of her children were allowed to return to school the next day after she sent the results to both schools.

“The schools are so paranoid,” she said. “The guidelines for what they’re required to look for…They’re just too afraid of keeping anyone at school.”

TESTING CONCERNS

Faubert’s concerns were echoed by other parents who spoke with CTV News about their worries for what the school year will look like if they have to keep picking up their child, getting them tested, or self-isolating every time they have exhibit a symptom.

Sharon Cheng-Ghafour said she felt most anxious about having to take her 20-month-old twins to a Toronto hospital for COVID-19 testing after one of them woke up on Monday morning with a dry cough. Even though she suspected it was only a minor irritation and not the virus, she decided to keep the twins home as a precaution and informed their daycare.

Cheng-Ghafour said the daycare operator told her the twins wouldn’t be able to return unless they received a negative test result or after 14 days. She said she wished there was a pediatric assessment centre where she could have taken her children instead of the ER, but the drive-thru testing centres don’t test children under the age of two.

“You don’t want the ERs to be loaded with these parents to try to prove that their kids don’t have COVID,” she said.

With long lineups and not enough sites in some regions, Morris said the testing backlog poses a risk to the school system because families may become more reluctant to report symptoms if they know they will have to go through an ordeal to have their child tested.

“The fact that we are having people wait in line for hours, the fact that we don’t have the capacity at the moment, and for a variety of means, to do all the testing that is being demanded, that’s a huge risk to our fight against COVID,” he said.

In an effort to respond to the increasing demand for tests, provinces are scrambling to introduce more testing sites, such as at pharmacies in Ontario and Alberta, mobile clinics in Quebec, and an easier method of testing using a “mouth rinse gargle” in B.C. to speed up the process.

INTERRUPTIONS

All of the parents CTV News spoke said they were concerned about how they would be able to manage their schedules if they’re required to pick up their children, take them for a test, stay at home with them, and work at the same time.

“I don’t know how it’s going to work in the future,” Cheng-Ghafour said. “If every time somebody has a sniffle or dry cough or something, we have to stay home for 14 days… I’m just in the process of opening a new practice and I’m thinking ‘I don’t know how it’s going to work.’”

Miriam Beamish said she’s having a particularly difficult time caring for her four-year-old daughter and making these decisions on her own after her husband died. The Toronto mother said she had to drop everything and pick up her son from his kindergarten class at a private daycare in the city after he developed a runny nose.

She said her son didn’t end up having COVID-19 and he always has a runny nose at this time of year so he was able to return a few days later, but it’s stressful to think she may have to go through this again.

“I don’t have somebody who to make these big decisions with. I have to make them all by myself and it’s really hard to know what the right thing to do is,” she said. “It’s just such a scary, scary time.”

In addition to the disruption in parents’ lives, Gilda Benhamou, whose son attends the Montreal private high school that paused in-person learning, said she’s concerned about the impact on his education.

“I’m more worried about my son’s education,” she told CTV News Montreal on Thursday. “I think the school is going above and beyond and has done everything in their power to make sure the kids are safe.”

Morris said families will have to try to be adaptable as they can as public health guidance and school policies evolve over the course of the school year in response to virus’ spread.

“Things are going to change. They [families] are getting used to changes. They’re about to have more changes,” he said. “We need to learn to adapt. When you get more information, you need to be adaptable.”

With files from CTV News Montreal  

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CBU to honour Donald Marshall Jr. with new research centre

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A new research institute planned for Cape Breton University will honour the legacy of Donald Marshall Jr., who fought for the Indigenous right to fish for a moderate livelihood.

The Mi’kmaw man’s name has been invoked in recent weeks by Indigenous fishermen in southwest Nova Scotia who have launched self-regulated lobster fisheries. 

“I think it’s very timely in terms of the need for knowledge sharing, for advocacy and for action,” said Janice Tulk, a senior researcher in the university’s development department. 

The idea for the institute has been in the works for a couple of years, sparked by one of the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, which emphasized the need for education about Indigenous law and Indigenous rights.

Donald Marshall Jr. addresses a crowd in Sydney, N.S., after leading a peaceful protest over Indigenous fishing rights, on Thursday, Sept. 28, 2000. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

“We started thinking about what could we do at Cape Breton University that would respond to that call,” said Tulk, whose areas of expertise include Mi’kmaw history and culture, as well as Indigenous economic reconciliation.

Tulk said the university has partnered with Cape Breton’s Mi’kmaw communities over the past 40 years to provide higher education in a variety of fields, with the creation of Mi’kmaw studies programs, Mi’kmaw science programs and more recently, Indigenous business and mentorship programs. The university saw the research institute as a next opportunity, said Tulk.

‘I think it’s amazing’

Cape Breton University will work with members of the Marshall family over the coming months to solidify the vision for the institute.

“I think it’s amazing,” said Crystal Bernard, Donald Marshall Jr.’s daughter.

“We’re so humbled and honoured that they would do this for him, in his name. And I know he would be very proud, as well.”

The idea was made public Monday as the university unveiled plans for a proposed, $80-million Centre for Discovery and Innovation. The project has yet to receive funding, but should it go ahead, it will house the Marshall Institute.

“We need a space where community collaboration can occur,” said Tulk, noting the institute will proceed with or without the new building.

Janice Tulk’s expertise includes Mi’kmaw history and culture, as well as Indigenous tourism development and economic reconciliation. (cbu.ca)

That collaboration will involve university researchers, faculty members and students, as well as community members and organizations such as the Bras d’Or Lakes Collaborative Environmental Planning Initiative and the Unama’ki Institute of Natural Resources, as well as various levels of government.

“I think we’re going to have some really valuable conversations that will advance our understanding of environmental justice and Indigenous approaches to climate change, and hopefully start to make some progress on those things through those dialogues, through advocacy, through policy change,” said Tulk.

Asked what role the institute might play in situations such as the current unrest over the Indigenous moderate livelihood fishery in Nova Scotia, Tulk said it would serve to help educate people about treaties and Indigenous rights.

“I would imagine that there would be advocacy as well,” said Tulk. “Certainly the institute could play a role in bringing stakeholders together to have honest conversations and collaboratively come up with solutions.”

Bernard said she believes her father would be disappointed by the ongoing situation in southwest Nova Scotia.

“I think it would be very upsetting to him that we’re having to go through this again,” she said.

“On the other hand, I think he’d be on the front lines, fighting with our people, trying to get people to understand that the treaty rights are not up for debate.”

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Calgary Catholic school increases safety precautions after district’s ‘explosion’ of COVID-19 cases

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Just last week, the number of positive COVID-19 cases in the Calgary Catholic School District was in the low twenties. But over the weekend, there was an “explosion of cases,” which has led some schools to take drastic steps to prevent the spread of the virus.

Chief superintendent Bryan Szumlas says there are now 64 students and six teachers within the district who have active cases of COVID-19.

“Over the weekend, we saw an explosion of cases.… This is like a three times increase in the last five days. I believe this is what we’re seeing now as a result of the gatherings that happened over the Thanksgiving long weekend,” he said. “Within Calgary Catholic, we have 118 schools, and 35 of our schools right now are dealing with active cases of COVID-19.”

Szumlas said dealing with COVID-19 in schools is an always evolving situation.

“After a 14-day period, some of these schools come off the list where others go on the list. Since the beginning of the school year, it has been a roller-coaster of ups and downs,” he said.  “Right now, we are at a low point and we’re asking all of our parents and our students to please be vigilant and to continue to practise our health measures as we go forward.”

Szumlas said there were roughly 1,000 students in isolation last week, but since then that number has more than doubled, and there are now about 2,400 students and staff who are in self-isolation.  

“Now, that number may seem fairly large, but to put it in perspective, our school district has just over 56,000 students. So that’s roughly 3.5 to four per cent of our total population,” he said.

“Of course, it worries me, but I have a lot of faith that working together with our communities, that this is a little blip right now and we can, if we work together, we can change that curve and bring it down, if we’re all working together and continuing to practise our health measures.”

The recent surge in cases at Calgary Catholic has lead some schools like St. Francis High School to take a more severe approach to curbing cases within the school population. 

In a letter home to St. Francis parents on Monday, the principal announced that five families had received confirmation of a student testing positive for COVID-19, and thus 300 students and 12 staff were in isolation.

As a result of the rise in cases, St. Francis will end its fall athletic program.

“This is necessary to reduce staff and students potentially needing to self-isolate because of a positive COVID-19 case. The start of our winter athletic season will also be postponed until we see a drop in positive cases at Saint Francis,” wrote principal Mark Berger.

The school has also chosen to make final exams “write to improve” only (meaning a lower grade can’t bring down the student’s overall mark).

Szumlas said he supports these moves. 

“I do support what this principal and the school is doing. This is innovative, collaborative. They’re informing their parents. We stand behind this and it is part of the assessment practices,” he said. 

Berger’s letter also appealed to parents to not let teens gather on weekends.

“Some of the positive cases reported were associated with weekend student gatherings. We ask families to consider the potential negative impacts of group gatherings on our school community,” said Berger.

“We are asking parents to discuss with their children the importance of social distancing, avoiding large gatherings and the sharing of food and beverages.”

The Calgary Board of Education, since the beginning of the school year, has had 140 positive cases and 80-plus schools affected by them. 

In October, the CBE said 3,300 students and 325 staff members had been impacted by mandatory isolations. 

Of those attending CBE’s in-person learning, five per cent of students and 3.5 per cent of staff have been affected by required quaranties since September.

“To date, we have had six cases of suspected in-school transmission,” said CBE superintendent of school improvement, Joanne Pittman.

“What I would also say, though, is that even with that suspected in-school transmission, individuals who may have then tested positive have already been in quarantine, and as a result, additional actions were not required because of the safety precautions already put into place. “

CBE board chair Marilyn Dennis said parents should be encouraged by these numbers. 

“The fact that we have only 0.1 per cent of in-person students and .06 per cent of staff that have been identified with a positive case, I would think that would be very encouraging for families,” she said. 

“The strength of it is, No. 1, that we have strong compliance due to the protocols we put in place [and], No. 2, that we have been thorough in our response. We think we can be proud of the work that we’re doing in our schools to try and keep our communities healthy.”

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Corrections watchdog urges moratorium on doctor-assisted deaths in Canadian prisons – Kamloops This Week

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