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When will kids get back to school?

There is probably no more fearsome and divisive debate in Canada today.

Caught in the middle are parents (and mothers, in particular) who want the best for their children, but who are also being crushed under the triple burden of working from home, home-schooling and parenting without respite.

If there is one certainty, it is that economic recovery and parental sanity won’t happen until schools and daycares are fully operational again.

Opinions on the school reopening question range from, “There can be no in-classroom teaching until there is an effective vaccine,” to, “Kids should be back in class now because the coronavirus poses little risk to them.”

Neither of these extreme positions is defensible.

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There may be a coronavirus vaccine someday – in a year or two – or maybe not. Even if there is, we don’t know how quickly children can be vaccinated, or how effective it will be.

Keeping Canada’s 5.5 million students out of their classrooms for years, condemned to schooling at home via Zoom, is a non-starter.

Education is not just a debate between book-based and digital learning. What you learn in the classroom, the schoolyard or the lunchroom is how to navigate life, how to be independent, how to compete and co-operate, how to make friends and resolve conflict, how to adapt to (or resist) rules and societal norms. It’s a place to play and grow, physically and emotionally.

This crucial interactive learning can’t be done at a distance. Children and youth of all ages need to get back into the classroom.

At the same time, we can’t be cavalier about the return to school. We are still in the midst of a pandemic.

The argument that is often trotted out in favour of returning – that young people who are infected with coronavirus don’t get that sick – is glib. They seem to get less sick, but the virus still isn’t harmless. Children can also transmit the coronavirus to others, including teachers, parents and grandparents.

While there is contradictory research on this key issue, the current consensus seems to be that children under 10 are about half as likely as adults to transmit the virus, but older children are comparable to adults.

The real-world evidence is mixed. In Israel, there have been huge school-based outbreaks. In countries such as Finland and Denmark, the return to school has not caused a blip in cases.

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While the spread of coronavirus is relatively under control in Canada (knock on wood!), we are not out of the woods.

Six months into the pandemic and six weeks shy of the traditional post-Labour Day return to school, the question we need to ask is not, “Should kids return to school?” The question we need to ask and answer is: How can we ensure that children return to school as safely as possible?

The single best way to ensure schools can reopen safely is to ensure there is no community spread. And when there is, we need to be able to catch cases quickly and limit spread with efficient contact tracing.

When children go back to school, there will be transmission of COVID-19. We have to accept that there is no risk-free scenario.

But again, the real issue lies in balancing the risks and the benefits.

The benefits of attending school in person are many. The way to minimize harm is with now-familiar public-health measures such as handwashing, physical distancing, limiting the size of groups and mask-wearing (at least for older kids).

Practically, that means smaller class sizes, creating cohorts of students, ensuring not all students are scheduled to eat lunch in the cafeteria at the same time, and limiting some activities, including choir practice.

One of the most controversial measures up for debate is a proposal to stagger school attendance for students. Ontario, for example, has considered having students attend school three days one week and two days the next, with online learning in-between. That’s a good approach on paper, but a nightmare for working parents.

There is no single best way to reopen schools; it’s going to be a tricky calculus. But this is a time when Canadian pragmatism, and a little bit of imagination, can serve us well.

Governments and school boards, however, need to stop dithering and propose clear reopening plans so we can debate, discuss and tweak them.

Getting children back in the classroom, smartly and safely, has to be the number one priority of politicians, public-health officials, educators and parents alike.

Bars, restaurants, hair salons, golf clubs and the like should all take a back seat to ensuring that children get an education – and a childhood – pandemic or not.

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