As an elected official, New Brunswick Education Minister Dominic Cardy is used to people telling him he’s wrong. Those comments arrived in waves again in March when parents told him closing schools was unacceptable, that COVID-19 was just the flu and he was falling for the hype.
A meme of him circulated on social media, depicting him holding up bundles of toilet paper in his arms, he recalled.
“I was very confident that by the time those two weeks had passed, public sentiment would have shifted,” Mr. Cardy said in a recent interview, “which it certainly did.”
New Brunswick closed schools for two weeks, and when that deadline came up, it announced schools would be shut for the rest of the academic year in a bid to stop the spread of COVID-19. The province’s approach is a marked difference from neighbouring Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia, who have extended closures every few weeks.
Ontario and Quebec, too, have said schools are closed until May. However, Ontario Premier Doug Ford indicated on Tuesday that the closure in the province would be extended, saying his Education Minister would provide more details later in the week.
The distinct approaches among provinces during this time of uncertainty has raised questions on whether it’s more reasonable to close school indefinitely or give families a sense of hope of a return to some normalcy.
Charles Pascal, a professor with the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, said that extending school closings month by month is more stressful for parents and educators. By announcing that schools are closed indefinitely, he said that longer-term planning can occur around what a return to school-based learning would look like, assuming students return in the fall.
“Parents and students want predictability and educators can adapt and get into a better rhythm dealing with the short-term challenges,” he said.
Prof. Pascal, who is also a former deputy minister of education in Ontario, added that “some might view that extending closures provides some hope for parents. In my view, false hope would be worse.”
In the days before provinces began announcing schools would be closed, Mr. Cardy implemented an unprecedented two-week ban from schools and daycares of all students, children, staff and parents who had travelled internationally during spring break. There was a period of angry e-mails from families, he said. Then, after a brief pause, complimentary e-mails came into his department, and those were followed by questions about why he didn’t act earlier.
“I was very aware of the need to act urgently and to follow the advice of the [World Health Organization] and others even at that point, to take aggressive steps as quickly as possible," he said.
Of shutting for the rest of the year, he said: “Each province is going to make their own call on school closings, but that is one we make based on the information we had available.”
Darryl Hunter, an associate professor of educational policy at the University of Alberta, said that regardless of what education ministers announce, the reality will be quite different.
“A provincial premier can say, ‘Listen, we’re all going back in on May 4.’ But what the public-relations goal there is to offer hope,” Prof. Hunter said, “because you know that school will still be out on May 15 if public health authorities deem in that jurisdiction that it’s too early to have students back.”
Prof. Hunter said decisions will have to be made by governments on whether the return to the school building will have staggered start times to allow for physical distancing until a vaccine is available. Further, if there’s a green light given by public health on students returning this year, the priority would likely be given to graduating high-school students, he said.
Zach Churchill, Nova Scotia’s Education Minister, acknowledged that the focus would be on Grade 12. “Obviously if it’s possible to get kids back into school, that will be beneficial for them. We know that our students, generally speaking, will perform better and get more out of being in school,” he said.
The Nova Scotia government initially closed its schools for two weeks following March break. The government has said that schools would be closed until at least May 1.
Asked if it would be better for families and educators in planning for the months ahead if classroom instruction was cancelled for the academic year, Mr. Churchill said the pandemic has caused a lot of uncertainty.
“We’re prepared for the prolonged closure,” he said. “We’ve communicated that to parents. And we appreciate the patience and adaptability parents, teachers and students have had in our education system.”
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