Jillian Horton is a physician and writer in Winnipeg. She is the author of the bestselling memoir We Are All Perfectly Fine.
Everyone who has raised children knows that there is a phase of parenthood where your kids dictate every aspect of your life. It lasts for approximately 21 years. My husband and I used to joke that our boys should be called our suns because our world revolves around them. We have that in common with parents everywhere. Which leads me to wonder: Why aren’t parents everywhere raising hell about safe schools this September?
Canada, let’s get real for a moment. Across a large swath of this land, politicians whose track records have made us question whether they would put batteries into smoke detectors correctly are making critical decisions about our kids’ safety this fall. At every turn, too many have treated kids like an afterthought, playing down or denying the direct impact of COVID-19 on children, and ignoring the fact that many of its most devastating indirect effects on kids – such as repeated school closings – are often a result of failures to competently manage community transmission.
Now, here we are, hurtling toward a particularly delicate phase in the pandemic. We’ve made huge progress with vaccination in those 12 and over, but are simultaneously peeling back restrictions in the face of the spread of the most contagious COVID-19 variant yet – despite the fact that children under 12 are unprotected.
You think there’s a plan? Forgive me if another kind of detector sounds in my mind when most of our provincial governments infer they’ve “got” this about anything. Here in Manitoba, it’s been just under a year since the Pallister government launched a disastrous campaign that will be forever remembered in Manitoba’s history books as Ready, Safe, (exponential) Growth, proving that one doctor’s emergency is another politician’s keg party. In recent weeks, Manitoba’s Premier has been reopening with more caution than his Prairie contemporaries, which is fitting since he dug us into the deepest hole. Still, at this point, most Manitoba parents wouldn’t pick him to lead our kids out of a corn maze.
So who is looking out for our children? I won’t be putting my faith in Deputy Premier Kelvin Goertzen, who recently bragged that Manitoba’s track record on school safety was “among the most successful jurisdictions in North America.” Our schools were particularly “safe” in May and June because the government’s gross mismanagement of our third wave meant they had to be closed – but that’s hardly anything to brag about. At least he didn’t try to take credit for the reduction in kids coming home with gum in their hair. Forgive me, but all of this feels like the prologue to another episode of the same old natural-gaslighting, only this time, the people who will suffer the most if this is bungled are our children.
Could school mask mandates or physical distancing disappear in September? In the face of the Delta variant’s many unknowns, this would be a pointless, contrarian risk, sort of like tucking your newborn baby into an Easter basket instead of a child car seat. You’re right, you probably won’t get into an accident on the way home from the hospital or driving a couple of blocks to get a litre of milk, but honestly, why the heck would you do that? A premature abandonment of these measures would also be an abandonment of every child with an underlying health issue, or whose siblings or parents have high-risk conditions. You want to cause a kid a lifetime of psychological harm? Set them up to be the vector for an infection that disables or kills their parent. After all, this isn’t only about whether COVID-19 can seriously sicken young kids – which it can. It’s about the ways in which kids exist in a vast, adult ecosystem. They are resilient, and they are also vulnerable. What valid reason could we have to abandon the simplest, evidence-based interventions that can help protect them from the Delta variant until they can be vaccinated, presumably by later this year?
Masks aside, where is the rest of our strategy when it comes to the other factors that can make schools safer? On the aerosol front, we aren’t listening closely enough to engineers, the experts who can help us understand the scope and nuance of the ventilation challenges in new and aging schools – a complex, heterogenous problem. What percentage of those schools have windows that are fused shut? What’s a realistic timeline for making even simple modifications? What about an adjunct CO2 monitoring strategy? Where is a commitment to put free-standing HEPA filters into every classroom? And what is our strategy when it comes to making rapid testing available in schools and eliminating the typical two-or-three day wait for results? As with most of our COVID-19 public-health interventions – each of these elements are additive. Meanwhile, it’s been clear for months that efforts spent on excessive deep cleaning are almost entirely pointless because COVID-19 is airborne. Those performative chemical baths have become an intentional, feel-good but time-wasting diversion, like waking up from an emergency appendectomy done with ether and a rusty saw to find that someone has also beautifully manicured your nails.
What else can we do that amounts to more than putting lipstick on an unmasked pig? One solution that’s had only minimal airtime is outdoor classrooms. Outdoor education – even if it is not for the entire day – could mitigate some of the overall infection risk associated with a return to school, especially if building ventilation has not been adequately addressed. This is a huge proposition for our already stressed and distressed teachers, one they are best equipped to speak to. But I would offer that just as our hospitals have temporarily turned operating rooms into ICUs and pediatric units into those caring for adults, we may need to demonstrate that same kind of short-term, wartime-effort mass pivot – this one toward outdoor education, wherever weather allows, until kids under 12 have been widely vaccinated.
As a doctor, I’ve shepherded hundreds of people through the end of their lives. I’ve heard a lot of deathbed regrets – but I’ve never yet heard anyone say they regret doing everything they could for their kids. We’re all sick of COVID-19, but the new school year is less than 50 days away. If we let our guard down now when it comes to schools, we are leaving too much to chance when it comes to our children. In-person schooling must resume this fall. And we have to demand that our governments do everything in their power to make sure that when it does, we are putting our precious kids on the bus, not throwing them under it.
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