Videos and photos showing dozens of students moving through packed hallways at several Calgary schools have parents and students raising alarms about whether enough is being done to facilitate physical distancing in the common areas.
In the images, sent to Global News earlier this week by concerned students and parents, students are seen moving through hallways and atriums, and though many are seen wearing face masks, they’re crammed together as they try to move around.
The physical distancing guidelines in Alberta schools are slightly different from other public, populated places in the province in that students aren’t required to maintain a two-metres distance from others while seated at their desks but they must wear a mask.
In her COVID-19 update on Wednesday, chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said she hadn’t seen the images or videos but said reports that distancing isn’t possible in school hallways is “concerning.”
“I think that this learning process of trying to figure out what works and what maybe needs to be adjusted is one that we will be in for the next several weeks, at least, if not longer,” Hinshaw said.
“I think that schools where they are seeing that kind of crowding in hallways, masking does provide some benefit, but it’s not the perfect protection — it should be an additional layer on top of other measures.”
Hinshaw said even with masks, officials want to avoid crowded, close spaces.
“If there are schools that are experiencing those challenges who can connect possibly with other schools who have found ways of addressing them — to try to figure out if there’s any possibility of staggered class times or other measures that might limit the crowding in the hallways — I think that would be optimal,” she said.
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Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist and assistant professor at the faculty of information at the University of Toronto, said it’s “always concerning to see a crowd packed shoulder to shoulder during COVID.”
“Even with masks, that happening for even a brief period of time, that’s not something anyone wants to see.”
Furness said the risk of infection depends on the number of people in a space and for how long everyone is there. However, the cumulative effect of being in a crowded hallway several times throughout a school day, several days a week, over several months, is “not trivial.”
He said schools dealing with crowding in hallways and common areas should find ways to stagger class start and end times, as well as break times, to avoid the large numbers of students gathering.
Both the Calgary Board of Education and Calgary Catholic School District told Global News they were staggering start, end and break times in schools.
Furness said it’s hard to determine just how susceptible the students in these schools might be to contracting the illness, as the risk of transmission is heavily dependent on the rate of community infection. That means in areas where community transmission is low, the possibility of spreading the virus in a crowded hallway setting would be less, but in areas where there is a high rate of infection in the community, “obviously, that starts to get more concerning.”
“The problem is schools are not designed to keep people away from each other,” he said. “They’re not designed to have different hallways moving in different directions. So there’s going to be some limits on what schools can do.”
Megan Geyer with the CBE said the board “cannot stop COVID-19 from entering our schools, but we can minimize the risk of infection and spread.”
“To this end, Calgary Board of Education will approach safety measures from the perspective of helping students learn new behaviours and strategies to stay healthy in a world where COVID-19 continues to be a threat,” she said.
“Physical distancing is challenging in any school setting with a large student population. As such, the CBE will establish different expectations for varying age levels and activities.”
Geyer said schools are using different strategies depending on their student population and building layout.
“These strategies include staggered release times for students at the end of the day, identifying directional routes like one-way staircases or hallways and managing which entrances and exits students use,” she said.
Sandra Borowski with the CCSD said schools are all working with students to “learn new behaviours” and “do their best to maintain physical distancing where possible.”
“All our schools also have their own unique staggered entry and exit times that help limit the [number] of students entering and exiting the school at a time,” she said.
“All of these protocols are in place to help limit the spread of COVID at our schools.”
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