Family health

School closures, self-isolation and social distancing—what parents need to know

How do you self-isolate when you have a family?

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on March 12. Since that time, the situation surrounding the coronavirus outbreak in Canada has changed dramatically. Still, there is some helpful information regarding self-isolation and the concept behind social distancing, so we’ve decided to leave it up. Please note that all Canadians are now being encouraged to practice social distancing. This includes working from home when possible, not visiting with neighbours and friends, avoiding play dates and distancing yourself from vulnerable populations, like the elderly and those with underlying conditions and compromised immune systems. This article has up-to-date advice, requirements and information on what to do if you think you might have the coronavirus.

Update March 16: All Canadians are now being asked to practice social distancing.  In an address to the nation, prime minister Justin Trudeau implored all Canadians to stay home as much as possible. “By staying home, you can not only protect your health and that of those around you, but ensure that our health care professionals and our health care systems can focus on those who need their help. This is an adjustment for all of us,” said Trudeau. 

All schools and daycares in Alberta are also now closed. The government of Canada is asking anyone returning from international travel to self-isolate for 14 days. 

Update March 13: Manitoba education minister Kelvin Goertzen announced Manitoba schools will close for three weeks starting March 23. 

Update March 13: Quebec premier Francois Legault announced that all daycares, schools, CEGEPS and universities in the province will be closed for at least two weeks.

Sophie Grégoire Trudeau is in self-isolation, after having mild flu-like symptoms and being tested for COVID-19, as is her husband, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, because of his exposure to her. And the entire Toronto Raptors team is in isolation after a Utah Jazz player tested positive for the virus.  What does this mean?

What does it mean to self-isolate? 

To stop the spread of coronavirus, people are being encouraged to self-isolate if they have the virus, or if they’ve come into contact with someone with the virus. The Public Health Agency of Canada is also asking everyone who has travelled to hot spots like China, Iran or Italy to self-isolate for 14 days, even if they don’t have any symptoms. [Editor’s note: This information is now outdated. Anyone who has returned from out of the country is now being asked to self-isolate for 14 days.]

In an interview with CBCToronto city councillor Josh Matlow, who went into isolation after being exposed to someone with the coronavirus during a meeting, spoke about what it’s been like, explaining that he has been sleeping and staying in his home’s basement, fully separated from his wife and daughter. 

His actions are in line with public health recommendations—which state that if it’s an adult who is sick or isolating, they should try to stay away from the rest of their family. That means staying home from work or school, cancelling appointments, and not having visitors over—though it’s fine for friends, family or delivery services to drop off groceries or other things you need. Ideally, the sick or isolating person would confine themselves to a separate room and bathroom, and have their own designated set of dishes, cups, utensils, towels and bedding. 

If they have to go into common areas, wearing a face mask and sitting far away from others is a good idea. And disinfecting surfaces like counters, tables, doorknobs, bathroom fixtures, phones, keyboards, tablets and bedside tables regularly is important. (For a complete list of precautions, click here). 

Of course, if it’s a kid that’s sick, they’re not going to take care of themselves. But parents can take care to clean the house thoroughly, limit visitors, wear gloves when handling the child’s laundry and garbage, wash their hands often and wear a mask and gloves when possible. (There’s a full list of advice for caregivers here ). 

People and kids who are sick but haven’t been exposed to coronavirus or travelled recently should stay home, too. “That’s always good advice, regardless of whether or not you may have COVID-19,” says Jocelyn Srigley, clinical assistant professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at the University of British Columbia.

What about social distancing—should we all just stay home from everything?

As we start to see cases of community transmission—when people get the coronavirus without having travelled to a place with an outbreak or been exposed to a person who’s known to have had it—we’re starting to see more events being cancelled. “There are all sorts of things that are possible—low-level social distancing, and then various steps upwards: closing schools, closing daycares, closing work,” says Srinivas Murthy, a clinical associate professor in the department of pediatrics at the University of British Columbia.

California offers an example of a widespread approach to social distancing might look like. This week, it announced new recommendations that any gatherings of more than 250 people be cancelled—including sports events, concerts, conferences and movie premiers. It also recommended that smaller events be cancelled if there wasn’t enough room for people to stay six feet apart, the spacing recommended by the CDC to reduce transmission. It also said people who are at a higher risk of getting the virus, like people in long-term care centres, should only have events that have 10 people or less in them. 

Canada isn’t at that point yet, Eileen de Villa, the Medical Officer of Health for the City of Toronto, said in a recent press conference yesterday. [Editor’s note: This information is now outdated. All Canadians are being encouraged to practice social distancing.] But it’s likely coming. “When we see more widespread community transmission, you are then in a position to deploy more significant public health measures, such as more significant social distancing, banning mass gatherings, that kind of thing. But you want to make your measures proportional to what’s happening in these circumstances,” she said. That isn’t stopping various organizations from implementing their own restrictions, however.

School closures and working from home

On March 12, the Ontario government announced that all Ontario schools will be closed until April 6. Some schools in British Columbia have shut their doors, and dozens of schools in the United States have also closed, many in response to staff, students or parents being exposed to coronavirus. This coronavirus only causes a mild illness in most children, but the concern is that they might encourage its spread among their parents and the rest of the community.

There is also concern that the return of travellers from spring break vacations will ramp up the epidemic. At this point, it’s unclear whether schools in other provinces will closed. Canada’s chief medical officer Theresa Tam has said it’s definitely on the table, but Murthy explains that public health doesn’t rush to close schools because it isn’t a very effective way to stop the virus, since kids tend to congregate elsewhere. “In the absence of a coordinated approach, just closing schools doesn’t solve the problem,” says Murthy.