OMA Spotlight on Health

Back to School with Halton Region Medical Officer of Health Dr. Hamidah Meghani

September 04, 2020 Ontario Medical Association Season 1 Episode 27
OMA Spotlight on Health
Back to School with Halton Region Medical Officer of Health Dr. Hamidah Meghani
Show Notes Transcript

This September back to school will look different for all children. Featuring Dr. Hamidah Meghani, Medical Officer of Health Halton Region Public Health, explaining how they are working with school boards to ensure the safest return to classes during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. 

OMA Podcast Episode 29 - Back to School with Halton Region Medical Officer of Health Dr. Hamidah Meghani

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Voice-over: In this podcast the Ontario Medical Association looks at current health issues that are on everyone’s mind. Spotlight on Health gives you the straight talk. We’re Ontario’s doctors and your health matters to us.

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Anne Marie Flanagan: I’m Anne Marie Flanagan. I’m the Director of Media Relations and Social Media at the Ontario Medical Association.

Dr. Hamidah Meghani: I'm Dr. Hamidah Meghani, Medical Officer of Health for Halton Region Public Health.

Flanagan: And we're here today to talk about back-to-school. 

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Flanagan: How are you working with local school boards and schools in order to ensure a safe return for students this fall? 

Dr. Meghani: The Halton Region Public Health has been supporting school boards and private schools throughout Halton to develop safe school reopening plans. We provide evidence-based infection prevention and control recommendations the boards can consider as they create their  individual plans. This includes providing resources and recommendation documents to help school boards, and private schools, develop policies and procedures to ensure the health and safety of staff, students, parents and guardians and visitors. 

We're working on age appropriate communications to help students learn how to clean their hands, have good cough etiquette, physically distance from their peers, and how to wear a mask properly. Lastly, we develop processes and protocols for managing sick staff and students in the school setting, and create guidance in case there is a confirmed case or an outbreak at a school.

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Flanagan: How important is it to have different materials geared to different ages, the educational materials that you talked about for children, on hand hygiene and mask wearing? 

Dr. Meghani: Well, we know that students of different ages have different language levels and different abilities. And so, it's really important that we get our message across clearly to them, and that we help parents with communicating to their children in time for the school year. And we are trying to make our communications more friendly for the younger age groups, which we know seem to be engaged in a different way. 

So one thing that my team is working on is a group of animated videos that will help the younger age group understand what their roles are in the school setting, how to keep themselves and their peers safe, so including various things like cleaning their hands, coughing into their sleeve, physically distancing, and, again, how to wear that mask properly.

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Flanagan: What are some of the unique regional challenges that you face? What would you say is unique or different about Halton?

Dr. Meghani: So, in Halton one of our unique challenges is population growth and, in particular, the growth of our school-aged population in the past several years. 

Because of this, our school boards are experiencing challenges with regards to things like space for students. And this is even more challenging with the need to ensure adequate physical distancing.  

Masks have also presented a challenge, as both of our school boards experienced significant pressure to put policies in place that exceeded provincial minimum requirements. 

But despite these challenges, and because Halton Region Public Health has developed a strong working relationship with our school boards over the years, it's allowed us to move really quickly in our joint planning. Even back in early March, with the beginning of the pandemic, we initiated communication meetings with our senior leaders in our local school boards to ensure that our planning was aligned. 

Quite a lot of our time has been spent over the past month on helping the school boards with their plans to make sure that we are doing everything possible to create that safe learning environment this coming school year. 

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Flanagan: And for people that don't understand a lot about the role of public health units, you are very involved with keeping people safe in the community, is that correct?

Dr. Meghani: In local public health, we focus on health protection and prevention of illness. As a physician who works in public health, I am a specialist in public health and preventive medicine. This is very important because you could say we are the doctors of the whole community. So, it is our job to keep the entire community as safe as possible, not only from these types of infectious diseases, but also from a large number of chronic diseases. 

So, we've been working with the schools as one of our main partners, in fact, at a local level to drive that agenda of creating healthier environments. And, as we know, health starts very early, and the health that you have early on in life really shapes your health down the road. So, it's been extremely important for us in public health for decades now to be working closely with our school boards on many fronts, not just infectious diseases. And that strong relationship has really helped us to ensure that, with COVID, we are providing them with the support that they need right now.

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Flanagan: What should parents and guardians be doing to help prepare for their child's return to school? 

Dr. Meghani: We have to look at two circles here. One is the household circle of parents and children, and the other is the entire community that you live in. 

So, while Halton continues to have a low number of cases, returning safely to school is a community effort. And we're continuing to remind parents and all of our residents that we all have a role to play to help keep our numbers low so that students can return to a safe school environment. 

We continue to recommend that people tighten up their social circle as much as possible, that they practice physical distancing, follow good hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette, wear face coverings in indoor public places and when physical distancing cannot be maintained, that they get tested if they have one or more symptoms of COVID-19, and, of course, stay home when they're ill, even if they only have very mild symptoms. 

So, to get into what Halton Region Public Health is doing for parents, we're offering a wide variety of resources, including advice for preparing children for their return to school, on our website at, as well as on our HaltonParents social media channels.  

Some of our suggestions include talking to children about how the school year will be different. Encourage them to ask questions and talk about their concerns. Teach children how to wash their hands properly, how to cough into their elbow, and not touch their face or other people's faces. Remind children that they should not share food or personal items, such as toys for younger children and cell phones for older children. 

Prepare your children for proper physical distancing. Practice following directional signage by going to places such as stores or the mall that have this directional signage in place, or at home you could create your own floor decals using chalk on your driveway. 

Finally, preparing children for wearing a mask will be very important. Parents can do this by allowing your child to choose the mask pattern, practice putting it on and taking it off properly, with the use of a stuffed animal or doll if need be for younger children.

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Flanagan: What signs and symptoms should parents look out for when they're deciding whether to send their child to school? 

Dr. Meghani: We're still learning a lot about COVID-19, but what we do know so far is that most children infected with the virus experience mild symptoms. And so, common symptoms of COVID-19 among children include fever, cough, runny nose, sore throat, headache, body ache, and diarrhea. Children that do not feel well should, of course, not go to school and should see their health care provider for a medical assessment.

 And, as you can tell, these common symptoms of COVID-19 do mimic a number of other viruses, including influenza. And so, it's important that, even if it's not COVID-19 that your child inevitably ends up with, that you keep your child home if they have any of these symptoms.

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Flanagan: On that note, particularly since you brought up influenza, vaccines are even more important than normal this year, as well as the flu shot. Do you have anything you want to say about that?

Dr. Meghani: Yes, I think it's so important that you keep your child's vaccinations up to date as much as possible, and for the flu vaccine that comes out this year. It's always important to get the flu vaccine, especially for those under the age of five, and, of course, our older adult population. 

We know it's not a perfect vaccine, but it does help in reducing illness levels in our community, and so every single person who gets the vaccine for influenza will be helping towards the cause of keeping illness in our community low.

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Flanagan: What would you say to parents who are feeling nervous about whether it's safe to send their kids to school?

Dr. Meghani: I can certainly understand how anxiety-provoking this time is for everyone. But let's be clear, I think to reach their full potential, our children really need the learning and socializing that in-school education provides. We know attending class is good for their education, it's good for their well-being, and it's good for the whole family.  

After months of isolation, where possible, our children really do need to be with their peers and their teachers. They need to be able to play, learn and socialize in as safe an environment as possible. 

That said, as we open up more opportunities for people to gather in the community in places like schools, we will certainly see cases of COVID-19. It's simply not possible to prevent all cases of COVID-19. What we can do is work together as a community to try to contain outbreaks and minimize the most severe outcomes. Everyone's situation is different and the decision to send kids to school in person needs to be one that works for each individual family. 

When it comes to the school setting, if there was to be a positive COVID-19 case in a school, public health is ready and prepared. We've been managing infectious diseases in the school system as part of our ongoing work for many decades. With any infectious disease, public health will work very quickly using case and contact management and other measures to prevent further transmission. 

I think it's important for parents to understand that there is no risk-free option. Sending your child to school may increase the risk of getting COVID-19. On the other hand, keeping your child at home may also increase the risk of interrupting their social, emotional, and developmental well-being. As I mentioned before, there is no right decision, only what's right for each individual family. 

So, it's important that families stay safe, stay informed, and be kind over the next few weeks as our school communities come together after many months of being closed.

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Voice-over: This podcast is brought to you by the Ontario Medical Association. It is produced and edited by Jodi Crawford Productions. This podcast is not intended to provide medical advice for specific situations and is for general educational purposes only. Please consult your doctor if you have symptoms or questions about your health. 

For more information, please visit our website at 

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