COVID-19 cases rising in Quebec schools, but experts say risk of severe illness low

MONTREAL — Despite a rapid rise in the number COVID-19 cases in Quebec schools, two pediatricians say it's important to keep schools open for in-person learning.

The rise in cases among children is predictable given the increasing transmission of the Delta variant in the general population and the fact children under 12 can't yet be vaccinated, Dr. Jesse Papenburg, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at the Montreal Children's Hospital, said Monday.

But Papenburg said there's no evidence the Delta variant is any more likely to cause severe illness in children than the original strain of the novel coronavirus.

It's a "very, very transmissible virus, we're going to see more cases," he said in an interview. "But, luckily, the risk of severe illness remains low, and we've not yet observed a substantial increase in hospitalizations (among children)."

While there has been a rise in pediatric COVID-19 patients in parts of the United States, Papenburg said that is occurring in places where vaccination rates are low. He said those low rates have led to much higher transmission among all segments of the population, including children.

Papenburg said higher vaccination rates in Quebec should help protect those who are too young to be vaccinated and help keep schools open.

"I really think that we need to continue prioritizing in-person learning for children," he said. "Yes, we want to make it as safe as possible, but we also want to preserve the socialization elements that are key to a child's development." 

The Health Department said there were 657 schools in Quebec with active cases of COVID-19 on Friday, the most recent day for which data is available, an increase of 66 from Thursday.

It said 980 students had active cases of the disease, an increase of 232 from the day before, as did 126 staff members, a rise of 33.

"One in five schools Quebec has at least a minimum of one case, many of them, if not all, have more than one case," said Olivier Drouin, a Montreal parent and founder of Covid Écoles Québec, a website that tracks COVID-19 cases in the province's schools. "I've been tracking this for a year, and I have not seen this amount of growth in this short amount of time."

The Health Department said 147 classrooms — in public and private schools — have been closed.

That's difficult for teachers, who have to be prepared to move to online teaching with 48 hours notice, said Heidi Yetman, the president of the Quebec Provincial Association of Teachers, which represents teachers at English-language schools.

Yetman said promised improvements to ventilation in schools have been slow to come.

"Personally, I'm very concerned," she said. "We're only two weeks into this and already we have many, many cases, many classes that have been affected. I only see this getting worse as we move to the season where windows will be closed."

Dr. Olivier Drouin, a pediatrician at Montreal's Sainte-Justine Hospital, said that while some children do become severely ill with COVID-19, the risk is quite small. He said the more tangible impact is that parents will have to stay home with children who can't go to school because they have COVID-19.

With the right measures in place to detect and prevent outbreaks, he thinks schools should stay open. 

"There's a real cost to having kids not attending school, whether it's because there's an outbreak or because we want to prevent transmission," he said. "Kids have suffered, not medically, but they've definitely suffered physically, mentally and emotionally from the pandemic."

Quebec's Education Department said it is deploying rapid COVID-19 tests this week in a number of schools in Montreal and its northern suburb Laval.

However, Kathleen Legault, the president of the association representing school administrators in Montreal, said school staff don't have the time to do the tests, which can take around 30 minutes. She said training materials received on Friday are aimed at medical professionals and aren't adapted for school teachers.

Health officials reported 639 new cases of COVID-19 in the province Monday and one additional death linked to the disease. The Health Department said the number of hospitalizations rose by 14, to 227, and 75 people were in intensive care, unchanged from the day before. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 13, 2021.


This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press

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