What a safe return to Ryerson looks like, according to experts

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By Prapti Bamaniya

With Ryerson announcing a gradual return back to in-person classes amid the pandemic’s current Omicron wave, some experts are urging the school to follow certain safety protocols, like masking and vaccination, for a safe return back to campus. 

Timothy Sly, a professor and epidemiologist at Ryerson, said the school should use the “Swiss cheese approach” in lessening the spread of COVID-19 on campus. 

This “Swiss cheese model” should include a combination of preventative measures, such as the use of masks, vaccinations, testing, ventilation and social distancing, said Sly. 

Every slice of Swiss cheese is full of holes, with the size and number of holes varying from one slice to another. In this model, Swiss cheese is symbolic of a given measure taken to minimize risk. Each slice of cheese can be thought of as a line of defence against the “holes,” which symbolize infection of COVID-19.

“There’s no single process that’s going to protect everybody, but you can keep putting enough layers with enough obstacles and obstructions there [to minimize its spread].”

“There’s no single process that’s going to protect everybody, but you can keep putting enough layers with enough obstacles and obstructions there to minimize its spread”

In an interview with The Eyeopener, Ryerson president Mohamed Lachemi said the university has a number of health and safety measures in place to prevent or minimize the impact of an outbreak on campus. 

He added that this includes the university’s vaccination policy, masking requirements and daily health screening. 

“We hope that our community members will continue to follow existing guidelines at the university with the return of on-campus activities in the coming weeks and months,” Lachemi said. “I believe that we have a very robust system in place and we will do everything to make sure that the safety of our community remains our top priority.”

Ryerson students are largely not optimistic about the return to campus as many fear outbreaks and the spread of the Omicron variant. Since the school’s announcement, students and faculty members have been penning petitions and open letters to the school, citing concerns over COVID-19 safety and potential outbreaks, The Eye previously reported.

Ensuring students are vaccinated and boosted

Ryerson School of Occupational and Public Health associate professor Thomas Tenkate said booster shots are really important, but with their slow rollout, it can be difficult to expect everyone to be boosted. 

“Having a booster shot from my perspective is what would be more considered to be fully vaccinated…but at this stage I’d rather put more effort into encouraging people to get their booster shots and, if they are symptomatic, to stay home,” he said.

About 62 per cent of COVID-19 cases were among those who were unvaccinated at the time they contracted the virus, according to data from the Government of Canada’s Jan. 14 COVID-19 daily epidemiology update.

Sly said unvaccinated people get the sickest and are a big factor in the spread of new variants, adding that vaccination could minimize the stress of the already overwhelmed hospital system.

Sly also said exemptions for vaccinations should be limited, and all Ryerson students, staff and faculty should be fully vaccinated for the safest return back to campus. 

Mandatory masking helps lessen the spread of COVID

Sly said the best way to mask is to layer a piece of cloth or surgical mask on top of an N95 mask.

Tenkate said an alternative to the N95 mask, which can be difficult to get your hands on, is a well-fitted mask under a surgical mask.  

In a congregate setting like a classroom, Sly said proper masking is one of the best ways to prevent an outbreak. He cited the example of two COVID-19 infected hairdressers in Missouri that properly masked and didn’t infect any of their 140 clients that day. 

Testing can provide more accurate data on COVID-19

Queen’s handed out rapid antigen test kits last December to staff and faculty, and Tenkate and Sly encouraged Ryerson to do the same.

“Most people in epidemiology have been saying we should have been using these tests at least a year ago,” said Sly.

He said Ryerson did have a number of rapid antigen tests and has ordered several thousand more. The rapid testing kits at the university are provided to students who are exempt from getting vaccinated, as they need a negative test result to enter buildings on campus. 

“Rapid tests, if they are repeated, are very good. Two or three tests bring you up to the level of what we call ‘sensitivity,’ an ability to detect the virus at the level of the PCR test, which is the gold standard,” said Sly. 

“Two or three rapid tests bring you up to the level of what we call ‘sensitivity,’ an ability to detect the virus at the level of the PCR test, which is the gold standard”

Tenkate said there is a shortage of tests, and it would be difficult to test everyone before they enter campus. He suggested reserving tests for those with symptoms to lessen the spread of any illness.

Ontario’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore said in a Jan. 6 news conference that “testing is a luxury,” adding there is a global shortage of rapid tests.

Because of that shortage, it can be difficult to predict and report outbreaks on campus, said Sly. “We’ll be going in blind. After doing a very good job [with testing], nobody’s collecting good data.”

Ventilation should be improved

While Sly commended Ryerson’s choice to hire an engineering consulting company for their air ventilation system, he still recommends following in the footsteps of elementary and high schools to add high efficiency particulate air filters into rooms. 

He warned that an air filter alone cannot remove the likelihood of spread. “When you put a filter into a room, it doesn’t immediately suck up all of the viruses. It just cycles the air slowly through itself…So there may be air in the room after 10 years that has not gone through the filter just because it was stuck in a corner somewhere it didn’t happen to get sucked in.

Enforcing social distancing

When it comes to learning in the classroom, Tenkate said he recommends distancing students and keeping just enough capacity to safely give students enough space between each other. 

Sly said he’s worried less about crowding in classrooms, but more worried about “pinch points”—areas where people informally herd together, where we see more transmission. For example, entering a classroom through one door, or lining up outside a bathroom. 

“You’ve got people with no distance or they’re all squeezing past each other and breathing on each other and coughing and spitting and talking and so on.”

Sly’s solution is to utilize classrooms where there are two doors, one to enter and one to exit; or use constant reminders and posters to keep students informed about ways they can keep themselves safe. 

“That’s going to be a challenge and it’s a bit of a balancing act for the administration”

Tenkate, on the other hand, recommends lowering capacity within buildings, adding that he “would feel more comfortable if there were fewer people in the classrooms.”

Sly said he thinks Ryerson is taking steps in the right direction. 

“I’ve been looking closely at what they’ve been doing and it seems that they want to get it right,” said Sly.

Tenkate said he believes there should be an alternative to coming to school in-person, adding that a lot of students are reluctant to return to campus due to the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19. 

“A lot of students say, ‘Well, we don’t want to take those risks. We don’t want to bring, potentially, infection back to our families.’ But..how will they learn? I don’t know. That’s going to be a challenge and it’s a bit of a balancing act for the administration.”

With files from Heidi Lee

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