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Nova Blanche Forman Elementary School teacher Attiya Batool, teaches her 4th grade class virtually as her son, Nabeel, does his second grade classwork online wearing a face mask and headphones during the first day of school in Broward, on Aug. 19, 2020, in Davie, Fla.Emily Michot/The Associated Press

Rita Achrekar is a risk management executive.

Parents, educators and administrators are anxious about school reopening this September. School boards are working hard to prepare for a safe return, yet parents face a difficult dilemma: Should they send their children back and risk them falling sick or infecting others in the family? Or should they keep them at home and risk the children falling behind in their studies and missing out on social interaction with classmates?

Teachers and administrators are understandably worried. How do they deliver quality education without compromising the health of teachers and students? The worries are unlikely to dissipate. Theresa Tam, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, recently warned us that the virus could be around until 2022 and we could see a “peaks and valleys” scenario or a “slow burn” scenario.

As a risk management executive who has built and overseen risk frameworks at large, complex organizations, and as a mother of two daughters (now young adults) who attended public school, I believe we are missing a system that measures and communicates risk levels on an ongoing basis to parents, teachers and administrators. We need a system that indicates the level of health risk at any given time and a set of pre-defined actions associated with the signals. This is akin to traffic lights – green means “go,” amber means “slow down,” and red means “stop.”

For it to work, school boards would have to allow enough flexibility in switching between online and in-person classes that schools, teachers and families could respond quickly to changes in the level of risk.

Such a system would help advance the dialogue on how to run schools safely and provide greater comfort to parents and educators alike. No one has a crystal ball to foresee how the virus will play out over the school year, but a pragmatic team of public-health experts, administrators, educators and parents could agree to a set of indicators to assess the level of risk and associated mitigating actions with a goal of always operating schools safely.

An illustrative example would have four levels of risk – very low, low, moderate, and high – along with an early warning indicator (risk is increasing, stable or declining). The risk level would be assessed based on best available scientific measures (key risk indicators) determined by public-health experts and would include factors such as how many cases a community has (absolute number and relative to population), level of testing, 14-day trend, etc.

At very low levels of risk, parents of elementary school students should feel reasonably confident that their child can participate in normal classroom activity, and teachers should feel comfortable being surrounded by students. Of course, preventive protocols such as handwashing, mask wearing, physical distancing, testing and contact tracing should continue as per public-health guidelines.

At low levels of risk, parents, students and teachers should be still comfortable, but a bit more cautious. Administrators could use enhanced safety protocols such as reducing classroom density by moving some students to outdoor spaces, gyms or libraries to ensure proper distance is maintained.

At moderate levels of risk, vulnerable students and teachers or those living with vulnerable family members would switch to online instruction; others would carry on in regular school.

At a high level of risk, all classes would transition to online instruction. The early warning indicator would signal the direction in which the risk is headed (increasing, stable or declining) and allow everyone time to prepare for a change in the risk level.

The key risk indicators should be calculated and communicated daily on a website. The indicators themselves would have to be updated periodically based on the latest scientific information (e.g. availability of a vaccine or emergence of a new virus strain).

Surveillance and communication of risk levels should be co-ordinated across each province, with regions getting individual risk ratings. After all, Timmins, Ont., might have a different situation than Toronto. The system should be calibrated such that it would be conservative (e.g. better for a healthy student to take class online than a vulnerable one to attend in person).

No system is fool-proof, but we have to learn to live with the virus for a while. Just as a parent looks at the weather forecast to decide on a warm jacket, raincoat or shorts as they send off their child to school each day, a health risk gauge would give some confidence to parents as they decide daily to send their child off to school or opt for online classes.

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