Why Grandparents Need their own ‘Back to School Plan’

Older woman wearing mask and using smartphone

The following opinion piece was written by Dr. Iris Gorfinkel—MD, frequent guest of both theZoomer and Fight Back with Libby Znaimer, and longtime friend of CARP.

August 9, 2020

Seniors may not immediately spring to mind when you hear the words dreaded by children everywhere: “back to school”.

But, this year, our grandchildren aren’t the only ones who need to prepare for the resumption of in-class learning.

When kids return to school in just a few weeks, it will greatly impact the social ‘bubbles’ or ‘circles’ (limited, exclusive social networks permitted under COVID-19 health guidelines) of Canadians, including children and seniors. Students will be exposed to each other in groups, wherein physical distancing may not be possible. This carries serious potential risk to those 60 years of age and older, and those with chronic conditions who have school-aged children in their bubble.

School boards across the country are scrambling to put together “back to school” plans that will keep both kids and teachers safe—a goal that will not be easily realized. Bringing kids back to class isn’t just about the didactic teaching of core subjects. It’s critically important for the development of social skills, lends stability to at-risk children’s lives, provides reduced-priced daily meals and supports both physical and mental health. It also allows parents and guardians to re-enter the work force; a critical step in rebuilding our economies.

Masks, sanitation and limited class sizes are among the recommendations made by school boards, alongside at-home learning. These measures are critical but, like all proposals intended to control the pandemic, they are far from perfect. There are still plenty of unknowns at play, including the ever-present question of adherence. Will everyone wear a mask? Wash their hands? Practice physical distancing? What will happen with the oncoming colder weather? What about aggressive contact tracing? Will kids or staff come to school when they have the sniffles?

When we look at the experiences of other countries, school re-openings have been sobering. Israel was one of the first countries to re-open its schools and serves as an illustration of caution when moving too precipitously. Within days of reopening in May, COVID-19 infections surged in Jerusalem, forcing a widespread shutdown of schools.

We continue our grapple with the unpredictable nature of COVID-19 in Canada. Schools have complex social structures with variable physical layouts, unique student and staff bodies, and a myriad of social dynamics. These factors make accurately predicting the impact that school reopening will have on the number of cases of COVID-19 extremely precarious.

It is for this reason that returning students should be considered “high risk” to vulnerable populations. It follows that, when possible, kids should avoid contact with those over 60 and those with chronic conditions when schools reopen. Instead, they should communicate by phone or electronically. When possible, this precautionary measure should be left in place for a minimum of one month following the start of classes. After this, we will have a much better idea of the impact that returning to school has had on the number of cases of, as well as hospitalizations and deaths resulting from, COVID-19 in Canada.

Should the numbers remain low, easing back on physical distancing can then be reconsidered. At that point, it would still be prudent for students to continue to wear masks, adhere to hand washing and maintain physical distance when visiting those within their social bubbles and moving through public spaces.

Canada has recently exceeded 9,000 deaths from COVID-19. We’ve seen close to 3,000 deaths in Ontario alone. Ontario also boasts the dubious distinction of having one of the lowest hospital bed ratios in the western world during a pandemic for which there remains no known cure and for which no safe and effective vaccine is yet available. It is sobering to contemplate that these numbers may well represent only the beginning of what’s to come.

Rethinking the social circles of vulnerable populations when schools reopen is a consideration that, for many, may not be seem like a viable option. However, when it comes to our seniors, not taking a thoughtful approach to the ways we interact with familiy this fall could have tragic consequences.

Starting this conversation with those closest to you now will help ensure that they stay that way in the coming months.

About the Author

Dr. Iris Gorfinkel, M.D. C.M. graduated from McGill University and completed her post graduate training at the University of Toronto where she was named Intern of the Year. Following this she became a Clinical Instructor in Family Medicine at the University of British Columbia, maintained a family practice, and served assessing women in the emergency room under the Sexual Assault Service at Shaughnessy Hospital (now the BC Women’s Hospital).

She since moved to Toronto where she maintains a full time general practice and participates in clinical research. In the past 15 years she has participated in over fifty Phase 3 clinical trials examining various aspects of primary care including vaccination, hypertension, migraine headaches and other topics relevant to family medicine. She is actively involved in teaching undergraduate students as well as training future medical office assistants.

She has also served as an External Peer Reviewer writing editorial comments for the Canadian Medical Association Journal since 2006. She feels that it is a great honor and privilege to serve as a physician. She endeavors to provide the care which promotes patient empowerment through imparting knowledge.

Dr. Iris Gorfinkel, M.D. C.M. is a passionate seniors’ advocate and devoted supporter of CARP.