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Grandparents need their own back-to-school safety rules

Back-to-school time and a surge in COVID-19 cases Canada-wide signals time for precautions between grandparents and grandchildren.
Wendy and Bob McKenzie of Edmonton enjoy time with their grandchildren, Grace (left), Nicolas and Olivia, who now head home from class with instructions on how to minimize transmission of COVID-19 Photo: Kate Wilson

As their grandchildren head back to school, Bob and Wendy McKenzie will be closely monitoring the children’s health.

“If they get ill, we won’t be able to visit,” said Bob. “We’ve chatted about it with our kids. It’s a concern, sending the children to school.”

The family was able to keep their circle contained over the summer, going to the lake and joining extended family in Beaverlodge. But now that the three Edmonton grandchildren are back in class, the family bubble is breached.

And that places the older generation back on alert, for potential exposure to COVID-19.

While the McKenzie’s are aware of the potential risk, they feel the best situation for the children is returning to school.

“We don’t know what the new normal is going to be like," Bob said. “School is the best place--they have the facilities set up to minimize the virus.”

But as seniors are the most vulnerable to COVID-19, it's a concern for the medical community and grandparents who live with their grandchildren.

Children can carry a large viral load, even though they may show mild to no symptoms, stressed Dr. Iris Gorfinkel, a physician and seniors’ advocate in Toronto.

In a CBC radio show in August, she reported on a recent U.S. study which showed that children with COVID-19 – whether or not they had symptoms – had more virus in their airways than adults hospitalized in an intensive care unit.

The numbers become more important for family members in the same household. A large study in South Korea, published by the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, closely monitored 60,000 contacts of roughly 6,000 cases of COVID-19. Researchers learned that 19% of household contacts of children 10 to 19 years old tested positive.

In Canada, COVID-19 cases are climbing again in a suspected second wave, reaching over 1,000 a day by mid-September.

Gorfinkel is sounding the alarm to grandparents about the potential of re-exposure after the summer break. She said children returning to school get necessary social skills, academics, physical fitness and stability. Schools are doing their best with mandatory symptom screening, masking and physical distancing measures.

But it’s not what children do at school, it’s what they do in front of their elders that's a concern, said Gorfinkel.

“Masks, sanitation and limited class sizes are critical but, like all proposals intended to control the pandemic, they are far from perfect,” she told CARP (Canadian Association for Retired Persons). “Will everyone wear a mask? Wash their hands? Practice physical distancing?”

According to a 2017 Statistics Canada survey, roughly 375,000 Canadian grandparents live with at least one grandchild.

“I tell the grandparents, you are the one who ends up in hospital, in the ICU. You’re overweight, over 60, and now your grandson is going back to school.”

Still, the medical community recognizes having grandparents and children stay completely away from each other isn't good for either party's mental health. Maintaining an emotional connection remains important, but so do physical measures, said Gorfinkel.

"With what we know about viral loads, the exposure will be less if the child is wearing a mask and social distancing,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be one hundred percent compliance, just be aware and do as best they can.”

Grace, grade 3 granddaughter of Bob and Wendy McKenzie, said "our teachers said when we get home, to wash hands and wash our mask. It stops the germs from spreading."

For information on what to do if a student has COVID-19 symptoms, go to Alberta also has an online COVID-19 status map that shows the current status of COVID-19 in schools.

Things families can do to minimize grandparents’ exposure to COVID-19

Start a conversation with those closest to you, while school is just starting.

Re-introduce mask-wearing and distancing when children see their grandparents. 

Avoid hugging or touching, especially without a mask.

Consider outdoor events or meet-ups. 

As the weather gets cooler, meet in well-ventilated areas indoors. 

Maintain hand-washing.

Go back to virtual visits for grandma and grandpa. 

Children should try to avoid contact with those who have chronic illness. 

Gradually reintroduce these measures for grandparents already in the family bubble, rather than shutting them off completely as soon as children return to class.

Things grandparents can do to minimize exposure to COVID-19

Limit direct exposure to children now that school has started.  

Consider online visits with Facetime or Skype, and do it at specific times because anticipating time together is a great mental uplift for everyone. 

Read a book to your grandchildren over the phone or online.

Listen to music ore discuss a book with them online or through a Zoom call. 

Older children enjoy doing errands, so ask them to do some shopping for you. 

Send your grandchildren a parcel every couple of weeks.  

Start a made-up story by starting with one line, post it online, and let your grandchildren finish it.