There is no perfect way to reopen schools, but there is certainly a wrong way: dithering and prevaricating about back-to-school plans and driving parents out of their minds with worry, fear and guilt.
More than 5.5 million Canadian students are slated to return to classes within weeks.
Political, educational and public-health leaders need to announce clear plans, however imperfect, for doing so as safely and smartly as possible.
Not in a week. Not in two weeks. Now.
Just as importantly, they need to assuage the concerns of parents.
Schooling has to be a priority. We can do it safely by learning from the successes and failures of other countries.
Children are not being dispatched to the fiery pits of hell. If we do this correctly, they are going be better off in school than they are now, wallowing in isolation and/or mingling in an indiscriminate manner.
In school, kids are going to learn, be with their friends, socialize and play – and they’re going to do so in a controlled environment.
What parents need to know is exactly what that environment will look like. It’s not going to be – or at least it shouldn’t be – the classrooms of yore, with 30 kids shoehorned into a room and moving about en masse.
Physical distancing is the single most important public-health measure we have to protect ourselves against the novel coronavirus. To allow children to be two metres apart, there should be no more than 15 students assigned to a typically sized classroom.
We can and should make that happen, instead of debating it ad nauseam.
Schedules should be managed so that each group limits its interactions with other groups. For example: implementing staggered lunch hours instead of having everyone eat in the cafeteria at once. Large group activities, such as high-school sports, should be kept to a minimum.
Cohorts (or bubbles if you prefer) of 15 are also practical because if there is an infection detected, you can quarantine a small group rather than an entire school.
Digital learning can supplement or replace classes for those who opt out of in-class attendance. Special attention should be paid to accommodate those with learning disabilities.
Elementary and high-school students should wear masks. Currently, the rules on this are all over the map. The Public Health Agency of Canada recommends everyone 10 and up should be masked; that’s as good a cutoff as any. Teachers should wear face shields and, with older students, masks, too.
We also have to pay attention to air quality. Classes should be outdoors whenever possible. Open windows are an alternative. HVAC filters should be updated and air purifiers are helpful, too.
Book-length guidelines, such as the Harvard School of Public Health’s excellent Schools For Health publication, are useful for experts, but parents need this guidance in digestible bites: Your child will be in a class of 15, with good ventilation, wearing a mask.
Clearly stated rules such as these would provide a relatively safe learning environment and, hopefully, calm some parental angst.
Schools do not exist in a vacuum. The best way to keep kids (and everyone else) safe is to ensure the virus is circulating as little as possible.
Benchmarks can and should be set.
In parts of the United States, such as New York State, officials have determined that if the positivity rate of coronavirus tests is less than 5 per cent, in-person instruction can resume. (In Canada, the positivity rate is 2.5 per cent since the beginning of the pandemic, but currently about 0.5 per cent.)
Another benchmark to aim for is less than one case of coronavirus for every 100,000, which indicates little community transmission. Practically speaking, that would mean, for example, reporting fewer than 150 new cases a day in Ontario. (On Monday, the province reported 115 new cases.)
We also have to keep the risk of kids returning to school in perspective. Yes, the coronavirus is new and it’s scary, but it pales in comparison to other risks. The single biggest danger in a Canadian child’s life is getting into a car.
Parents cannot rationally argue, “My kid won’t go back to school because it’s too dangerous,” and then turn around and drive off on a family camping trip.
We are concerned – obsessed, even – with making schools safe, and that’s good. But we have to concern ourselves with what children will be doing if they’re not in school.
Very few of them will be bubble-wrapped in the basement. Nor should they be. But they can and should be learning and growing in social bubbles at school.