OMA Spotlight on Health

Back to School with Ottawa Associate Medical Officer of Health Dr. Sarah Funnell

September 04, 2020 Ontario Medical Association Season 1 Episode 29
OMA Spotlight on Health
Back to School with Ottawa Associate Medical Officer of Health Dr. Sarah Funnell
Show Notes Transcript

This September back to school will look different for all children. Featuring Dr. Sarah Funnell, Associate Medical Officer of Health with Ottawa 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 28 - Back to School with Ottawa Associate Medical Officer of Health Dr. Sarah Funnell

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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. Sarah Funnell: I'm Dr. Sarah Funnel. I'm an Associate Medical Officer of Health at Ottawa Public Health. 

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

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Flanagan: So, how are you working with local school boards or schools to ensure a safe return for students this fall?  

Dr. Funnell: At Ottawa Public Health, our School Health team had been redeployed—to the COVID response—earlier on the pandemic, when schools first closed in the spring. Which means, our School Health team is being led by experts in the field of COVID response.

Our team has been closely connected with the school boards, the transportation authorities, and with parents. And, we've been regularly meeting with the school board on a weekly basis to plan for the eventual school reopening.

Our school team, and the school boards, worked through some scenarios in a table-top simulation exercise of what we would each do in the event of a case of COVID in a school, or an outbreak. 

At Ottawa Public Health, we have an expert group in COVID and school health supporting our local schools in safe reopening. 

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Flanagan: What are some of the unique challenges and/or circumstances that you're facing in Ottawa? 

Dr. Funnell: Ottawa is unique in that we have a million people in our city. It's a mix of both urban and rural. So, you can see, for school planning, that's a challenge, because it's not a one-size-fits-all model that works here in our area. So, it's a very unique and distinct city with lots of considerations. 

When I think about transportation in the urban areas, many people can walk to school. The fear of riding a school bus isn't there. Yet, it is for those in the rural areas, because you only have the choice to take the bus, or your parents drive you. 

And then we have the French school board, which there are fewer schools. So, children that go to the French school board often have to take the bus too, because of distance.  

Given that we are a bilingual region, we have all of our materials in both French and English. As well, we have a repository of resources in many languages—I can't even tell you how many there are, but several languages. And that's all available on our website at

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

Dr. Funnell: As a parent, I want to recognize that there is fear in having their children go back to school. But what I can tell you from my experience being a parent, but also working closely with our team in case and contact management and outbreak management, that people are more likely to become infected with COVID when they're in a comfortable place, when their guard is down. And that's usually in social settings. 

How to keep you and your family safe at this time in the pandemic is really to keep your social bubble small. This is where you're most likely—where people become infected with COVID is in their social situations. And so, if we keep our social circle small, and we're careful about that, we'll be less likely to send kids to school sick when we don't know they're sick.

So, it goes back to the basic principles of being COVID wise; keeping distance from people, wearing masks, washing your hands, keeping that social circle really small, and not going places when you're sick. And that includes not going to school when you're sick.

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Flanagan: What signs or symptoms should parents be looking out for when they're considering whether to send their child to school that day.

Dr. Funnell: Ottawa Public Health has developed a screening tool that should be used every day before children go to school. And the purpose of that is to help parents and guardians make decisions about whether or not their child or children can attend school. 

So, the symptoms of COVID vary from person to person, and they're very similar to other viral illnesses. Common symptoms are new or worsening cough, fever, feeling feverish or chills. With children, often they express abdominal symptoms, such as pain, or have diarrhea, or vomiting. Just feeling unwell.  

Children can also have some skin changes or rashes. There is a symptom that people often talk about, that's loss of smell or taste. Feeling fatigued, or just unwell.

These symptoms may take up to 14 days to appear after someone's been around someone else with COVID, but often people become unwell with COVID about five days after they've been in contact with someone else that has COVID. 

So, if any of these symptoms appear in a child, that student should not go to school. 

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Flanagan: Could you speak a little bit to the importance of vaccines? 

Dr. Funnell: Vaccines are one of the most important public health interventions of the modern day. Vaccines save millions of lives every year, so it's important children should be vaccinated for all childhood vaccines. This protects the child and protects the family and protects other students. 

What a disease like a virus like COVID does, is that it's so sneaky, and it takes advantage of susceptible people. It can spread rapidly unless you put something to block it. 

So, blocking COVID means wearing a mask that blocks it. Distance blocks it. Washing your hands blocks it. Keeping yourself away from others when you're sick can block COVID from getting to others. And then there's vaccines, and so vaccines can block it. 

So, it's like when you have a group of people that are vaccinated, they're like an army against COVID, and they can block it from getting to those that aren't able to get vaccines for various reasons, or have not yet become vaccinated. And, in the public health world, we call that "herd immunity." And we see how effective that can be in other situations, such as measles or mumps, where the majority of our population is vaccinated against those diseases.

My hope is that we'll see a similar situation when a COVID vaccine becomes available. If a lot of us are vaccinated against COVID, the majority of us are vaccinated against COVID, we’ll have this army, this herd immunity, that can block it. 

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Flanagan: What would you say, specifically, to parents that are feeling nervous about sending their kids to school? 

Dr. Funnell: Firstly, as a parent, I recognize that nervousness. This is an unprecedented time across the world. We've—we've never experienced anything like this before. 

 And, ensuring a safe return to school means that we have to be COVID wise, protect ourselves and others from transmission—which really starts in our own home and in the community outside of school.—we have our screening tool for parents to check and see if their kids are meeting any of those screening criteria, which means they should stay home. 

And as a parent, I recognize that it's important for our kids to get back to school. And at the same time, I recognize that this school year is going to be different. It's going to come with some inconveniences, and we have to be prepared for that. 

So, the inconvenience of keeping a child home when they have a sniffle, having them tested for COVID—that's inconvenient. But that's the safest thing to do. 

So, this year is just going to be a lot different than other years. And, it's weighing the importance of education and the importance of health, to make this year the best year we can possibly make out of a very difficult situation. 

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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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