Interview

Colin Furness


We need public health in schools to control COVID. And it’s when we lose control that maybe we then need to close, maybe.

One thing we know from international studies, one recently published in Science and the other in Nature, is that when you close schools, Google mobility goes down. When Google mobility goes down, community transmission goes down. 

So I do disagree with Dr. Fulford’s suggestion that we can separate schools from communities. Schools are not only embedded in communities, they are communities, in my estimation. In Ontario, we’ve got about two and a half million kids, and if you add all the bus drivers, teachers, support workers, you’re really talking about a distributed workplace of millions. This is community. So here’s the thing: we can drive COVID down by reducing mobility, as measured by Google, and those associations are very clear. And closing schools accomplishes that. It’s not that every five year old is going to school with their cell phone. We’re not measuring kids going to school, we’re measuring all the other activities, the teachers, the support workers, the bus drivers. Also, parents are stuck at home with their kids when their kids are at home, so there’s less community movement. If there’s another way that we can achieve a gigantic drop in Google mobility, I’m absolutely all ears. I just don’t see it. 

There are three different scenarios that have a lot in common: restaurants, air travel, and schools, not three things you would typically see stitched together. They’ve all got something really important in common, which is that the debate tends to be emotional, and there’s a lack of evidence. We have huge problems in Ontario, and also in B.C., in how data are gamed: So I don’t doubt that statistics have been reported by my colleagues, but I doubt their veracity, I doubt their validity. 

The “schools are safe” narrative is the biggest obstacle we have. We haven’t tested. We haven’t done proper asymptomatic testing. We don’t understand child transmission. 

Cross-examination:

Moderator Meera Dalal-Burns: Both you and Dr. Morris spoke about the precautionary principle, which is the approach of avoiding harm when conclusive evidence is not yet available. By “harm” until now you’ve been talking about COVID-related illness and death. But in using this principle, you have not acknowledged the mental health collateral harm which Dr. Fulford and Dr. Grant and Dr. Bitnun spoke of, which we now have evidence for. So the value judgment of physical health above mental health and other factors is deemed inherent in this approach. Why does this type of harm trump the physical harm that we’re talking about? 

Colin Furness: That’s probably the hardest question you could ask me. And I think I’ve got an escape answer. And the escape answer is, if you shut schools long enough, the harm that accrues to children is going to outstrip it. No question. We’re assuming tacitly in this debate that when we close schools, we do it for many, many months. No, no, that’s not the way this should have gone at all. I would never say that we should be closing schools for a very, very long period of time, merely that sometimes when we lose control, we have to regain control. If schools were closed for a week, or two weeks, or even three weeks, it’s less likely we would have seen that collateral damage. I’m a parent. And I’ve got a zoo going on here in the background. I’m not going to deny the harm to kids. But I don’t see it after a week or two weeks or three weeks. I see it after months.

Meera Dalal-Burns: Multiple panelists have spoken about the B.C. experience of schools staying open year-round. How do you acknowledge the science that they use to make this decision and use their experience moving forward? 

Colin Furness: I’ll go right back to the idea that it’s politicians who are actually deciding the narrative more so than scientists. The measurement that was done in B.C. did no sero-testing. It set the bar very high: if you were outside of the school building, and it wasn’t clear that you were in the same class within 48 hours of another kid in the same class, it wasn’t counted as school transmission. So they managed to game the numbers in a way to tell a narrative. In other words, B.C. set out to demonstrate schools were safe, instead of asking the question, “Are school safe?” And that’s what I really object to.

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Authors

Colin Furness

Contributor

Colin Furness is an infection control epidemiologist and assistant professor at the Faculty of information at the University of Toronto.

Cross-examiner

Meera Dalal-Burns

Contributor

Meera is a general internist, palliative care physician at St. Michael’s Hospital, and journalist with a penchant for the unusual and a love of untold stories.

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