Andrew Potter is an associate professor at the Max Bell School of Public Policy at McGill University.
As Canadian provinces struggle with the question of when (or even if) to reopen elementary schools, many parents have moved on. The concern is no longer when their children are going back to class, it’s whether there will be any summer camps. Some day camps, which are the backbone of the child-care system for many families in summer, are already sending out notices that summer sessions are cancelled, and anxiety levels among parents are spiking. The best thing officials could do – for children, for parents and for the economy – is to forget about schools for now and turn their attention to ensuring that the camps open as soon as possible.
The two main arguments for reopening the schools have nothing to do with teaching and learning. One argument is that for many parents, having their children in school is necessary for them to get back to work. So some sort of mass child care is an essential precondition to restarting the economy. The second argument for having at least some children go back to school is to expose them to the virus at a time when the health care system is not yet overwhelmed. Quebec Premier François Legault was pretty clear about this when he said he doesn’t think it is a good idea for all the province’s children to go back to school for the first time in September.
There are a few problems with the back-to-school push, though. To begin with, the teachers’ unions don’t love it, and for good reason. Teachers will be in charge of enforcing the various physical-distancing requirements in the classroom and in the schoolyard. All of this while trying to keep themselves safe? It’s a recipe for stress and anxiety that could scar everyone involved worse than the lockdown already has.
A second problem with school is that it is indoors. From what we are learning about the transmission of COVID-19, it is far more likely to spread indoors than out. One study by Chinese scientists of 318 outbreaks found that every single one involving more than two cases of infection occurred indoors.
The upshot is that sending children back to school is going to cause a lot of stress, at relatively high risk. And it is totally unnecessary because there is a better alternative: camps.
Camps are the solution to many of the problems the school reopening is designed to solve, while significantly mitigating the risks of exposure and transmission. Going to camp gets children out of the house and lets their parents return to work. To the extent that we want to enable some limited exposure to the virus, outside is better than inside. And unlike schools, which are staffed by adults who, because of age and pre-existing conditions, might be more or less at risk from COVID-19, camps are staffed largely by much lower-risk teenagers.
We’re not talking about anything fancy – no sleep-away camps or high-end STEM camps. Just the plain old-fashioned day camp such as your local YMCA or community centre or soccer club runs. Lots of sports, a few games, some arts and crafts, all of it outside in the fresh spring air.
That’s right, spring. Some provincial governments have already written off this school year, while others are pondering reopening for a few weeks in May and June. But all would be wise to shift their focus to camps right now.
Normally, summer camps start at the end of June or first week of July, depending on how the holidays land. But since school is out, why not start them in May? No one is going anywhere anyway – pleasure travel is currently off the table, and most family vacations, such as they will happen, will be pushed later into the summer as lockdowns ease. For the next two to three months, our collective focus is going to be on getting the economy restarted while minimizing community transmission of COVID-19.
This is why it is unwise that summer camps are already cancelling their sessions. Instead of schools, the government should reach out to every summer camp operator and help them figure out how they can get started by mid-May. Do they need space? There are lots of schools with empty yards. Do they need staff? There are lots of teens out of school. Do they need money? Ottawa is printing truckloads of it.
Trying to get our children back into a school routine for a few weeks is pointless and liable to be counterproductive. They don’t need three or four weeks of half-hearted and anxiety-fuelled education. They need socializing and they need exercise. That is, they need camps. Open them.
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