Coronavirus: Toronto epidemiologist modelling COVID-19 says the school year may be done

For epidemiologists modelling the novel coronavirus, predicting the future is an inexact science.

But two Toronto experts agreed that shutting down schools for only a month is not enough to stop the spread of COVID-19 and said they believe social isolation could continue for months, if not years.

“People should at least entertain the possibility that the school year may be done this year. I’m hesitant to speculate what will happen in September, but it’s also possible that we’ll be dealing with a disrupted school year in September,” said Ashleigh Tuite, an epidemiologist who’s part of a research group at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana school of public health.

Tuite said her group at the university began their research project in February when it became clear that COVID-19 was out of control and was likely going to spread to Canada.

Their goal is to help support public health in understanding the virus. Their group is still in the process of studying the pandemic and writing up the report, which has yet to be peer-reviewed.

Tuite said the study is looking at the duration of the intervention of shutting down schools and getting to people to work from home similar to what we have now.

“We looked as far as 32 weeks. You’re still going to have a lot of people infected, and you’re still going to have a number of people requiring hospitalization beyond what we think our current health care system can support,” she said.

“Again, acknowledging that things will change. Hopefully, we can become better at managing the disease. We may have pharmaceutical treatments that will make the outcomes of the infections better. We buy ourselves time.”

Jane Heffernan, the director of York University’s Centre for Disease Modelling, would not predict how long she believes shutting down schools and working from home could last. But she acknowledged she has seen studies suggesting it could be months to two years, including a study from Imperial College in London that predicts social distancing could continue for 12 to 18 months.

“All of the models that I’ve seen say something different. All agree that in the short term, this closure of schools isn’t sufficient and we would probably be looking at a longer term closure,” said Heffernan

Heffernan reminded Canadians that as long as we are really diligent in our social distancing, than the time could be shorter in the long run.

Prime minister Justin Trudeau was asked about how long it could be until life returns to normal at a news conference on Thursday. He said the government is following recommendations from experts. “It could be weeks or months”, said Trudeau.

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