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Eagle Heights Public School in London is one of the two schools in Thames Valley District School Board selected to be a part of a pilot project to test out physical distancing measures.Kate Dockeray/The Globe and Mail

At two of the larger schools in London, Ont., staff are spending the summer testing directional arrows pasted onto hallway floors, installing portable hand-washing stations, rearranging furniture and erecting protective barriers for front office workers.

The pilot project at Eagle Heights Public School and Saunders Secondary School is unusual – a way of putting discussions on reopening schools into action, and testing public-health measures before students and educators enter buildings this fall.

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“It’s all about risk mitigation,” said Thames Valley District School Board education director Mark Fisher, describing the walks through the school to test and rejig plans. “We’re talking a lot theoretically about what needs to be in place. But for us to put these things practically into operation, we need to test them out.”

'It’s all about risk mitigation,' said Thames Valley District School Board education director Mark Fisher, seen here on July 24, 2020, describing the walks through the school to test and rejig plans.Kate Dockeray/The Globe and Mail

This is not the summer for complacency, educators and infectious disease experts warn, especially as a growing number of provinces announce schools will be open for full-time classroom instruction this fall. There are worries in some quarters that apart from local initiatives like the one in London, most schools remain in the planning phase, with not enough testing being done on the ground over the fleeting summer weeks to prepare for the return of millions of students and staff.

“I think we have the opportunity to do dry runs on things,” said Michael Warner, medical director of critical care at Toronto’s Michael Garron Hospital and a father of three school-age children. It does not mean that children and educators should be used as guinea pigs, but rather “to trial things in a safe way before school starts, before there’s a rush to get everything done,” Dr. Warner added.

Protective barriers for front office workers at Eagle Heights Public School.Kate Dockeray/The Globe and Mail

Children are a wildcard in this pandemic: They don’t tend to get very ill when infected, but it’s unclear how they drive transmission. Some research suggests that young children are less likely than adults to transmit the virus to others.

Alberta, Saskatchewan, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia have announced plans for their youngest learners to return to school full time, with COVID-19 precautions.

In Ontario, Education Minister Stephen Lecce is expected to reveal back-to-school plans next week for the province’s two million students. A spokeswoman for Mr. Lecce said the government is working with medical and scientific experts to implement health protocols for schools, but did not directly answer what, if any, on-the-ground work is being done this summer to prepare.

British Columbia and Quebec are in a unique position because officials reopened schools toward the end of the last academic year. Various measures were put in place, including arrows taped on the floor to direct traffic and doorways kept open to minimize contact with surfaces.

“We’ve learned a lot by having schools open for more students in June, as well as how to keep students and staff safe,” according to a statement from B.C.‘s Ministry of Education. “From these lessons, combined with the work the steering committee will undertake throughout the summer, and guidance from the provincial health officer – the goal is to have as many students back in school as safely possible come September.”

Alberta’s Premier Jason Kenney said his province is using some of the lessons learned from other countries, including Denmark, which safely reopened schools. Mr. Kenney told reporters earlier this week that some daycares and summer schools have also safely reopened. Still, summer school looks much different compared with a return of all students. At the Calgary Catholic School District, for example, only 7.7 per cent of its students attended summer school programs and it had classroom sizes of 14 students plus one teacher.

Dr. Warner said that now would be the time to test infection control practices, for example, in a school setting, to highlight what works and to tweak what needs improving.

“You don’t show up to the final exam without having studied,” he said. “We are running out of time to do that, for sure. The summer days drift away quickly.”

Patrick Maze, head of the Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation, said his members are growing anxious about the lack of preparation for a return to school. He said that government is relying on school divisions instead of taking the lead on safety measures.

“Some parents are already making plans to home-school their children rather than expose their kids to government’s irresponsible plan during a global pandemic,” Mr. Maze said.

He added: “Many teachers have already gone to visit their doctors to get notes for accommodations so they aren’t exposed to these significant health concerns and lack of safety measures or concern from their government.”

Nisha Thampi, medical director of infection prevention and control at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario in Ottawa, said it’s a good idea to flush out ideas, but it requires buy-in from parents and educators. “This time should not be wasted, and it should be invested in developing models that are reviewed and vetted by various stakeholder groups,” Dr. Thampi said.

She said that public health has been working closely with local school boards, and that “parents should be reassured that experts ... are thinking about this, and are very concerned about keeping children out of school any longer than they need to be."

In London, Mr. Fisher said other school boards have shown interest in the work of his district. He said that by walking through the schools, staff have been able to keep modifying practices. For example, carpets were rolled up and put away because it makes cleaning easier.

The plan, Mr. Fisher said, is to produce instructional videos for educators and families on what movement along hallways could look like, and how the school day would be structured around hand hygiene and safety.

“We want our students to feel as safe as possible,” he said. “For us, it’s that sweet spot between keeping kids safe and still have quality learning continue.”

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