Paul W. Bennett is the director of the Schoolhouse Institute in Halifax and author of the coming book The State of the System: A Reality Check on Canada’s Schools.
Staggered school start dates, medical checkpoints, classes split in half, desks spaced two metres apart, physical distancing in hallways, eating lunch in classrooms and washing hands every two hours. These are just some of the possible changes in store for Canadian K-12 schools reopening in the first phase after the COVID-19 pandemic.
With premiers and public-health officers talking about opening up again, senior school superintendents are hunkered down and weighing the potential risks to the health of students and teachers. Reopening schools is proving more challenging and complicated than authorizing systemwide shutdowns.
When it’s deemed safe to reopen, school planners will be confronted with a dizzying range of policy options. Some will turn to early experiments such as those in Denmark, as well as New Zealand and California. Facing push back from anxious parents and teachers, many provinces will be drawn to a go-slow “rota approach” as in Australia and Scotland, adopting a one-day-a-week or alternating days schedule.
Schools resumed for preschool to Grade 5 students in Denmark on April 15, as the initial phase in that country’s relaxation of strict coronavirus lockdown measures. It’s fairly makeshift because, as Danish head school teacher Tanja Linnet conceded, “we used to make plans for if there was a terrorist attack here – but never this kind of attack.”
News images of Danish physical-distance schooling paint quite a picture. Students are seated in class two metres apart, schoolyards are divided into play zones, and entrance/exit routes diagrammed on school maps. Students wash their hands upon arrival and then every two hours, and all contact surfaces, including door handles, are disinfected twice each school day.
While preparing for his April 29 target date, New Zealand Education Minister Chris Hipkins tackled the huge logistical challenges of moving from Level 4 (shutdown) to Level 3 (partial opening) in “waves.” He said it was possible that teachers could be allowed back first and that distance learning will continue, albeit delivered from schools.
Starting with the children of essential workers, making it easier for them to do their jobs, sparked vocal criticism from principals. They claimed it implied that schools are little more than “babysitting services” and argued that preparing senior high-school students for graduation should be the first step.
Getting younger kids back to school was a stated priority for California Governor Gavin Newsom in a state where 6.1 million K-12 students were thrust into “distance learning.” That experience exposed gaping educational inequities, especially in poor and marginalized Los Angeles region communities.
Australian health authorities support a gradual school reopening plan. Bringing public-school students back to class for one day a week, beginning May 11, has exposed tensions over how to transition back to full-time, face-to-face schooling. The New South Wales Teachers Federation claimed that the plan “beggars belief” because it presents massive logistical problems.
Scotland’s “rota system” plan for students to return every second week faces criticism for its potential to compound learning loss. The situation in Scotland bears watching because of Premier Nicola Sturgeon’s influence in Canadian educational change circles.
Schools in Canada’s provincial K-12 systems will, in all likelihood, look significantly different whenever buildings reopen. Be prepared for changes, including staggered schedules and shifts; regular temperature monitoring; deep cleaning and stricter sanitization measures; physical-distance classrooms and movement routines; blended (combined seat-based and online) learning; classroom takeout lunch services; limited athletics and arts co-curricular programs; small, congregated special-needs/English-language learning classes; and academic “catch-up” programs to mitigate significant learning loss among certain cohorts of students.
Quebec has announced a tentative reopening date of May 11 for some schools. Premier François Legault said the schools will aim to maintain two-metre distances between students, class size will be limited to 15 and daycare workers will wear masks.
Renewed fears of COVID-19 flare-ups in the communal school environment are already surfacing. Co-ordinating school reopenings with public-health authorities may help to allay such student and parent concerns. We may also witness a parent backlash comparable with the “My child is not a guinea pig” Facebook protest that garnered 40,000 supporters in Denmark.
Principals and teachers will need to be brought on side to ensure a successful transition. Providing teachers with masks and access to other personal protective equipment may be necessary until the immediate threat of a second wave has passed. Reducing class sizes and expanding the pool of substitute teachers would also help to ally concerns.
Whether the radical shift to e-learning will stick is more difficult to assess. Thrust unprepared into uncharted emergency online learning may sour teachers on adopting education technology and simply exhaust parents and families struggling to cope with the fears, anxieties and stress of a pandemic. When the crisis is finally over, this totally unplanned experiment with e-learning may well send everyone in K-12 education back into their comfort zones.
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