Across Canada, the plan for returning to school for elementary students can be summed up in a phrase: Meh, let’s just see how it goes.
High school students, who appear to be just as susceptible to COVID-19 as adults, will see reduced class sizes in some provinces through a combination of in-class and online learning.
But elementary-aged students, about whom the science on COVID-19 is less clear, will see about as close to a return to normal as it gets: full-time in-class learning, normal class sizes, regular start times, no real physical distancing. Good luck, and hope it works out.
Indeed, class sizes will stay the same in Alberta and Ontario. As for mask-wearing, Ontario will recommend masks for students in kindergarten through Grade 3 and require students in Grade 4 and up to wear them in classrooms. For the older cohort, Alberta will only mandate their use in hallways and other common areas.
B.C., similarly, will not mandate masks or physical distancing, but will require elementary students to stick to “learning groups” of 60 kids to minimize their number of contacts. Quebec’s plan is for much more ambitious “bubble groups” of six students within regular-sized classrooms. And many of the other provinces – which, notably, have had far fewer COVID-19 infections – have left much of their school re-opening plans to the discretion of individual districts and boards.
Many parents, particularly in Ontario, are understandably upset by the province’s return to nearly normal for elementary students. After all, for the past several months, medical experts and political leaders have been preaching about the grave importance of physical distancing and reduced in-person interactions, and about the dangers of congregating in poorly ventilated indoor spaces. And now, the province is telling parents to send their kids to school with none of the conditions they were told are essential to staying safe. Of course parents were going to balk at the plans.
Provinces are obviously betting on the presumption that crowded classrooms of young kids won’t spread the disease in a meaningful way. Alberta Education Minister Adriana LaGrange said as much on Tuesday, when she noted that, “Current medical evidence indicates that children under 10 may be less likely than older children or adults to transmit COVID-19.”
Ms. LaGrange was likely referencing a recent study from South Korea that reported children under 10 spread the virus at about half the rate as older children and adults. There is also evidence – from a European study across 25 countries, for example – that children who do become infected with COVID-19 experience less severe illness, even though they appear to carry viral loads similar to those of adults. And provinces can point to other countries – such as Denmark, Finland and Germany – that reopened schools and did not see significant spikes in new infection numbers.
But as with everything, there are limitations to the value of this evidence. The South Korean study evaluated disease spread during a time when schools were closed and thus, children had few opportunities to congregate among themselves. It was also limited, as the authors noted, in its representation of asymptomatic cases (which is particularly relevant when we’re talking about children, who often experience mild or no symptoms of COVID-19).
Students did return to classes rather successfully in Denmark, but schools there also adopted strict hand-washing regimens every couple of hours, as well as staggered breaks, lunches and start times, and physically spread apart students using vacant spaces left by higher grades who were still learning at home. Israel, in contrast, resumed classes for all age cohorts in short succession and implemented and/or enforced few disease-control measures, with disastrous results.
It may be true, sifting the various studies, reports, anecdotes and experiments, that young children really are less susceptible to COVID-19, and/or are poor vectors for transmission of the virus. But we don’t know that with anything close to the certainty required to ask parents to forget what they’ve been told about mitigating the spread of COVID-19, and to send their kids to crowded classrooms to risk potential exposure or bringing the virus back home. The job of the provinces was to create safe conditions for a return to in-classroom learning, as well as to persuade parents that they have created safe conditions for a return to in-classroom learning. The former may be true (although we can’t know that with certainty right now), but it doesn’t matter unless the provinces are able to achieve the latter. And judging by the responses of many parents across Canada, particularly in Ontario, provincial governments have failed at that task.
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