Issues in focus
- Numbers: If parents want real-time data about COVID-19 infections in their local schools, many of the most populous provinces don’t have a single resource they can check – and now they’re scrambling to create some, as they did with nursing homes early in the pandemic. Quebec, Ontario and Alberta have promised to update data on each school’s infections, while B.C. plans to report outbreaks rather than individual cases.
- Infections: Nearly half the children who’ve been in hospital with COVID-19 were admitted for unrelated reasons like broken legs or surgeries, according to a surveillance effort involving 2,800 Canadian pediatricians. But the researchers warn those numbers come from before schools reopened, and now that children face more risks of exposure, educators have to watch what happens carefully.
Province by province
- Manitoba: A Grade 7 student in Winnipeg is the province’s first to test positive for COVID-19 since schools reopened, but because they had “no close contacts” others do not have to self-isolate, Manitoba’s top health official says. The school, Churchill High School, is being cleaned and classes are continuing.
- B.C.: Some parents keeping children at home are worried their spots in specialty programs will be lost unless the province acts to improve remote-learning options. The Education Minister says districts are trying to meet families' needs based on their responses to a survey.
For the latest information on back-to-school plans, check the provincial and territorial information pages below or consult your local school board. The Public Health Agency of Canada also has its own school guidelines, but they’re not prescriptive, since education is a provincial jurisdiction.
- Atlantic Canada: N.L., N.S., N.B., PEI
- Central Canada: Que., Ont.
- Western Canada: Man., Sask., Alta., B.C.
- Northern territories: NWT, Yukon, Nunavut
How do the provincial plans differ?
Key differences for students
- Attendance: In Quebec – which has the strictest policies for in-class instruction – attendance is mandatory for all elementary and high-school students. The only exceptions occur if a class suffers an outbreak (in which case they’ll be sent home and continue studies there), a student has a doctor’s note saying they’re at high risk of COVID-19, or a student lives with a high-risk individual. Ontario, by contrast, requires school boards to provide remote-learning options for those who want them.
- Masks: Masks will be mandatory in all classrooms in Ontario for grades 4 to 12. Manitoba and Alberta have restrictions for the same grades in any settings where physical distancing can’t be maintained; Calgary’s two main boards are going a step further, requiring masks for all grades, though not necessarily in classrooms. In Quebec, B.C., Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador, governments have made masks for middle- and high-school grades in common areas like halls and buses, but not classrooms; the same is broadly true in Saskatchewan, though there it’s up to school boards, not a provincial mandate.
- Cohorting: Most provinces will aim to have cohorts (B.C. calls them “learning groups”) to limit how many students come in contact with each other. In Quebec, Ontario and Alberta, the cohort is the class itself, though Ontario is also capping the size of high-school classrooms in high-risk areas to 15. B.C. allows the largest cohorts: 60 for elementary- and middle-school students, and 120 for high schoolers.
Key differences for teachers and staff
- Masks: Mandatory mask policies will be more common for teachers and other school staff than for their pupils, but the rules aren’t consistent nationwide. They’ll be mandatory in many settings in Quebec, Ontario, Alberta and Newfoundland and Labrador schools. In B.C. and Nova Scotia, masks are optional. In Prince Edward Island, gloves and face shields are strongly recommended if staff are interacting with students with complex medical needs.
- Whose class is whose: To distribute teachers evenly among a larger number of smaller classes, each school will have to create a more complicated schedule than usual, which may involve rotating teachers between classes.
- Indoors vs. outdoors: The federal COVID-19 guidance for schools encourages classes to be moved outside when the weather allows it, and jurisdictions like Nova Scotia plan to follow that advice. But thinking ahead to the winter, when outdoor instruction won’t be as easy, many school boards are pressing for ventilation upgrade that could reduce the airborne spread of the virus: Ontario has pledged $50-million for heating, ventilation and air conditioning improvements.
- Transportation: In some provinces, the most complicated physical-distancing challenges fall to bus drivers, who will have to consider capacity limits (Quebec buses can have no more than 48 passengers) or fixed seating arrangements (Alberta pupils will have to stick to assigned seats). B.C. and Saskatchewan buses may have partitions for drivers. As for masks, they’re required for Manitoba’s bus drivers and encouraged in PEI but not necessarily required everywhere else.
Key differences for parents
- Transportation: The Prairie provinces and PEI are strongly encouraging parents to take their children to school whenever possible, while in other jurisdictions, boards are adding new buses or walk-to-school programs to make physically distanced transportation easier.
- Visiting: Some jurisdictions are limiting access to schools to staff and students only; parents may not be allowed to enter buildings. Instead, there will be designated outdoor pickup areas. Manitoba schools plan to have areas where students who report COVID-19 symptoms can be quarantined before pickup. In Newfoundland, parents of kindergartners may be able to accompany their children on the first day of class, though specific practices may vary from school to school.
My child is going back to class. What can they do to get ready?
Learn how COVID-19 works
Because closing schools was one of the first steps taken in Canada and abroad when the pandemic was declared, little is known about how children contract or spread COVID-19. Children aren’t invulnerable to the virus, but the good news is that they make up far less of the infection toll than older people, and when they do get sick, their symptoms are often less severe. The bigger risk is that students with mild or absent symptoms will spread COVID-19 to teachers, family members or immunocompromised classmates who are more likely to get seriously ill. To prevent that, it’s essential that children know the COVID-19 symptoms (a dry cough, fever and difficulty breathing) and isolate themselves quickly if they’re not feeling well.
Talk about hygiene
Students at school will be expected to wash their hands a lot more often than usual, and may be given dedicated break times to do so. The video below demonstrates the federal government’s recommended practices for good hand-washing.
Talk about mental health
The pandemic has been a stressful time for everyone, including children who’ve been unable to see their friends or enjoy normal summer activities. But going back to school may give students new and more immediate anxieties to manage. Here are some pointers from parenting coach Sarah Rosensweet on managing children’s anxiety, and a mental-health hub for youth that includes various provincial crisis lines your child can contact if they’re in distress.
Help children stick to a routine
New school routines will be more regimented. They could include staggered lunch and recess breaks to avoid crowding, different lengths to the school day or an alternation between in-class and at-home learning on designated days of the week. Make sure that your child has a day planner or scheduling app, and work with them so they’re getting the right mix of sleep, academics and social time. Here are some pointers on how to do that.
Items to bring
- The old standards: Pencils, pens, paper, scissors and other back-to-school staples are still as necessary as ever, even more so in schools with no-sharing policies to stop the spread of the virus on surfaces. Consider buying a washable pouch to store these items. For more ideas on what to bring, consult this guide.
- Computer: Some jurisdictions, like Nova Scotia, expect students to have their own computers that can be used for remote learning. If an outbreak sends the rest of the class home, this may be students’ only option for continuing lessons. If your child has a laptop or tablet, make sure they’re familiar with the software needed to stay in contact with their class; if they don’t, check with the school board to see if they provide computers or subsidies to buy one.
- Grazeable lunches: Schools may restrict where and for how long children can eat, packed lunches will need to be easy to assemble and carry. Here are pointers from Julie van Rosendaal on good foods to bring.
- Non-medical mask: There are lots of homemade and brand-name masks options to choose from. The trick is finding one that’s the right size for your child and can be worn comfortably for long periods of time. Health reporter Wency Leung talked to medical experts who suggested four things to consider.
I don’t want my child back in class. What are my options?
Virtual studies or home-schooling are still an option in some provinces, notably Ontario, but every family’s situation is different. Ultimately, it’s a question of assessing risk: Is it better to send a child to school and be ready if they get sick, or to keep the child at home and disrupt your family’s working routine? Risk-assessment experts who spoke with The Globe caution that, in a new situation like a pandemic, gut feelings can be less reliable than the advice of experts. But “there’s no right answer as to how that trade-off should go. Everything depends on your own values,” says Paul Slovic, a psychology professor at the University of Oregon.
Some families, skeptical of their local back-to-school plans, have begun organizing “education pods” like those that emerged in the United States over the summer. The idea is to have families pool resources to hire a private teacher to instruct children in small groups. But many education advocates say pods will only segregate privileged families from racialized and low-income ones who will have to face the risks of public education alone. “Wealthy families have the resources to do whatever they want. It’s not a luxury for us parents who have four or five kids,” says Sureya Ibrahim, an Ethiopian-Canadian community organizer in Toronto’s Regent Park neighbourhood.
Your questions answered
Education and equity
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Compiled by Globe staff
With reports from Wency Leung, Dakshana Bascaramurty, Les Perreaux, Mike Hager, Ian Bailey and The Canadian Press
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