LONDON, ONT. -- As time runs short for parents to decide whether to send their children back into the classroom, Middlesex-London Health Unit Associate Medical Officer of Health Dr. Alex Summers shares his thoughts on safety protocols and what parents should consider when making their decision.

Q: Parents across the country are worried about sending their kids back to school right now. Is this the right time to get kids back in classrooms?

We know there are many different considerations that any given parent or guardian considers with anything their child participates in. What we know is the rates of COVID-19 in our region are as low as they have ever been since the beginning of the pandemic and that school is a very important part of a child’s development. We know, therefore, that the schools should be opening at this point and time, but the personal decision of any parent or guardian, needs to consider everybody’s own situation and values and considerations in making a final decision.

Q: Should the low numbers in our region give parents any kind of relief?

The numbers should certainly provide parents some level of comfort. And of additional comfort, I hope, is that as a community, we continue to monitor those numbers very closely. We have to be ready for a possible increase in those numbers and we have to ready for the possibility and likelihood of some cases in schools, but we have to recognize that cases are certainly as low as they have been, and given that, the comfort level of returning to school is higher than it would have been back in the spring.

Q: An Ontario petition is calling for reduced class sizes in the fall. Would this be an appropriate measure?

One of the guiding principles for us in preventing the transmission of COVID-19 is decreasing the number of people that anybody comes in touch with during the day. We have been working continuously with many partners in the community, including our schools, to ensure that physical distancing can be kept within school environments. In some ways, that will mean potential reduction in class sizes, however, those conversations continue. We are working closely with our partners to address it.

Q: Are masks in schools the best way to prevent the spread of the virus?

Masks are one tool in our tool box that can help disrupt the transmission of COVID-19. They aren’t the be all and end all, but they certainly appear to be helpful, which is why we have seen an expansion in requirements for mask wearing in our community and the strong recommendations for last number of months for non-medical masks to be worn when physical distancing is not possible. We continue to emphasize that, and as we go into the school year, wearing masks will be an important component of protecting and preventing transmissions in the schools.

Q: We haven’t really heard of a way to enforce students and staff wear a mask. Do you see this being problematic?

I don’t see a lack of an enforcement plan at this point being the largest issue we have to deal with. As we’ve spoken about before, regarding masks in our community, it’s really around an educational approach and working to ensure people are wearing masks and they are wearing them correctly. That will be something we will have to work with students on as they head back into the classrooms.

Q: What do you think will be the largest challenge when kids return to class?

I think our biggest challenge in schools will be ensuring that regardless of what happens in schools, that all the protective measures that people take at home, continue to be in place. It’s really understandable and important that we worry about the health of our children through this unprecedented and scary time. One of the other things we know is that kids do really well when it comes to COVID-19 infections. It’s those that are older that tend to get the sickest, and therefore, whether or not transmission happens in schools, it’s important that in our homes and in our communities, we continue to physically distance as much as possible to protect those who are at highest risk in our community from being infected with COVID-19.

Q: What’s your advice to students and staff returning to the classrooms in the fall?

As we look forward to the school year, my number one piece of advice is that I hope you’re looking forward to seeing your friends, if you are going back to school, because this has been such a challenge for the last number of months. School, through its ups and downs, is the way in which we learn and connect and grow. As we go back to school, it’s important that we think about how we are going to take care of one another by wearing our masks if we can, by making sure that if we are sick, we stay home, by keeping our physical distance when we are there, when we can, and when we go home that we are keeping our physical distance from others in our community so that we can protect people like our grandparents, and our aunts and uncles, to make sure that those most vulnerable to COVID-19 are protected from the infection.