Education

COVID-19 in schools: Tracking outbreaks, closures, news and numbers across Canada

The latest on efforts to get students back in class without triggering school closures—or a second pandemic wave

This year’s back-to-school routine is unlike that faced by parents and children in any other year. Education during a pandemic means masks and sanitizers are packed alongside snacks and lunches in school backpacks, while parents track their children’s health for symptoms that may be indicators of COVID-19. Once at school, students are dealing with learning within cohorts or bubbles, as well as staggered lunch and play breaks. The past few weeks have been a blur as administrators and teachers frantically adapt their schools race for the new reality.

To help provide some context for parents, Maclean’s has compiled information and data from across the country into this post, which will be updated regularly.

The latest

  • Canadian kids are returning to school against a backdrop of rising caseloads: As of Sunday, Sept. 13, the country is adding nearly 700 new cases each day, on a seven-day rolling average. That’s nearly double the rate from a month ago, when Canada was adding 388 cases per day. (More information here.)
  • Also concerning for the education restart is the “R value,” or reproduction number, for individual provinces, which indicates how easily COVID-19 is spreading. As of Sept. 14, eight of the 10 provinces have R values of more than 1, meaning that each infected person is infecting more than one other person. For example, Saskatchewan has an R value of 1.64, meaning each 100 infected people are passing COVID-19 to 164 others.
  • After 10,000 more students opted for online learning last week, Peel District School Board in Ontario, one of the country’s biggest, pushed back the start of online teaching until at least Sept. 21 (in-person classes had already started). “We require additional time to staff online classes and reconfigure timetables” the school board explained in a letter sent to families two days before classes were due to begin on Sept. 14. The school board now has more than 64,000 online students.
  • Two students in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., were removed from their elementary school after it was revealed that they’d just returned from outside Canada and should have been in quarantine, CTV News reported. The parent of another student called authorities after noticing the family’s social media posts showing their trip to the United States.
  • At least 269 schools in Quebec sent out notifications of at least one COVID-19 infection between Aug. 26 and Sept. 14, reports Covid écoles Québec, which tracks those documents. That represents nine per cent of all schools in the province.
  • As if September wasn’t chaotic enough, a chronic shortage of school bus drivers combined with the pandemic has resulted in reports of routes being cancelled far and wide, including more than 50 in the Hamilton Region, CTV reports. Not only are many drivers older and thus at higher risk to COVID-19, but new hires need background checks and to pass government requirements before getting behind the wheel.
  • School reopening coincides with the seasonal flu season. But if the experience of nations in the southern hemisphere is any indication, the flu season may be muted, graphics in the Economist show. A combination of lockdowns, physical distancing and other public health measures combined to significantly reduce their flu caseload. Regardless, public health officials are urging all Canadians to get flu shots.

Tracking outbreaks

(This list will be updated)
Canada: The Canada COVID-19 School Case Tracker website, created by scientists and medical professionals, has a map that plots school outbreaks.
Alberta: The government page tracking school-related COVID-19 cases; also, the Support our Students website tracks official notifications of outbreaks.
Saskatchewan: The province announced it will provide some data on COVID-19 in schools on a weekly basis.
Ontario: The government has a page tracking school-related COVID-19 cases; and Ryan Imgrund, a hospital biostatistician at Southlake Regional Health Centre is tracking school-linked infections daily on his Twitter feed.
Quebec: Covid écoles Québec, a citizens’ group tracking official notifications of outbreaks, has a running list on its website and Twitter feed.

Quotable

“If you do one thing with your child tonight, do this: If he or she has a phone, download COVID Alert (Canada’s free exposure notification app.) Do your part. Have your child do theirs.—Ryan Imgrund, a hospital biostatistician at Southlake Regional Health Centre in London, Ont., who is tracking Ontario’s pandemic.

Province by province

This table outlines general provincial requirements for schools as they reopen, taken from advice on government websites and press releases. Please use this table as general guidance only: many of the thousands of schools and districts/boards in the nation have their own specific requirements, some of which are changing daily.

Where the risk lies

How many young people have contracted COVID-19 in recent weeks? That is the question many people are asking, especially as the number of new cases rise across the country. The answer is less than definite. While there are good sources for raw tally of cases, deaths and tests across the nation, there is no central repository in Canada for age-related COVID-19 data. Some provinces offer easy ways to download their COVID-19 statistics while three provinces only include age information in press releases.

On Aug. 22, Manitoba suddenly stopped releasing age and public health region data for individual cases, making it impossible to easily calculate the recent share of youth cases. Instead, it provides is an online cumulative tally back to the start of the pandemic. (Asked if the Manitoba government could provide the relevant information, a spokeswoman responded, “What is available online is what we are able to provide.”) Nova Scotia, meanwhile, has never provided detailed age-specific information. Maclean’s combed government sites for age-related data and used the Internet Archives Wayback Machine to collect the statistics needed to create these charts. Because provinces present their data in a variety of age categories (0-4 years and 5-9 or 0-9 years, for example), Maclean’s had to use the overall 0-19 year category.

The data come with caveats. A few provincial statistical databases, which can offer detailed age breakdowns not found elsewhere, are not completely up-to-date. For example, Ontario’s dataset, is around 1,000 cases behind the numbers released by public health units. Moreover, the numbers are raw, and not adjusted for population. So Alberta, with 4.4 million population, currently has higher incidence of cases than B.C., which has 5.1 million people. (Maclean’s will keep looking for better comparable data.)

So consider these charts a reflection of overall trends showing how many young people are being infected with COVID-19.

The 10 largest cities in Canada account for more than one third of the nation’s population, and thus huge amounts of students. So Maclean’s has broken down recent COVID-19 case data by age for the public health units for those cities (Winnipeg’s data is missing because Manitoba stopped releasing case information broken down by age and health region). Again, the pesky data problems inherent to Canada raise their heads, as not all cities have their own distinct health regions; for example, Peel Region just outside Toronto, is home to two of those cities, Mississauga and Brampton.

A graphic tracking per capita rates of new COVID-19 cases show not only which direction provinces are going but also how they compare to the national rate. To more easily show trends and keep most of the daily swings in data to a minimum, Maclean’s uses a seven-day rolling average. (As B.C. and Alberta do not post new data on weekends, the rolling average only partially compensates for a lack of data on three-day holiday weekends.)