Seven weeks from today, some six million Canadian children and teenagers would typically be readying to head back to school, and savouring their last weekend of summer freedom.
Yet with the start of September looming large, too many political leaders and education officials across Canada have not announced what this essential service is going to look like, and how it’s going to work.
It’s time they figured it out. The coronavirus pandemic has strained all Canadians, but some have borne a greater weight.
The elderly in long-term care homes have suffered. Many low-wage workers have lost their jobs.
And for parents, juggling work duties with home-schooling and general child-rearing has been a difficult grind.
It is women in particular, and especially those in low-wage jobs, who have had the hardest time. They deserve to have a clear picture of what to expect in the fall, and yet that is not available to them.
The lack of clear plans for education is especially glaring given that governments and health officials have already reopened parts of the rest of the economy.
This includes hair salons, malls and public pools. If Canada can figure out how people can get a haircut, go shopping or share the waters of a public swimming pool, surely plans could already be in place for the start of school.
The key element in any reopening is of course tackling COVID-19 and pinning it to the ground. But that has in general happened in Canada. Even the provinces that were hardest hit – Ontario and Quebec – are finally containing the spread of the disease.
Minimal community transmission makes the reopening of schools more viable, and some provinces are going for it. Quebec is planning full-time schooling all the way through high school, with measures in place to protect against the virus. New Brunswick plans full-time school for all students through to Grade 8.
Too many Canadian parents elsewhere have been left wondering and waiting and, in recent days, exasperated by the absence of answers. And many school boards across the country have had to try to figure out, mostly on their own, what September will look like.
Ontario is an example of the current confusion. The Ottawa-Carleton District School Board was planning to have half its elementary students in class two days a week, and the other half on two other days, with Wednesday used for cleaning.
Other Ontario boards were looking at similar ideas. But then the provincial government this week called for students in class three days one week and two the next.
The cold truth of the continuing pandemic is that full-time schooling in September is probably not going to be reality for most Canadians.
Research indicates schools are not hotbeds of infection, and that children are less vulnerable to the virus and not as likely to transmit it. Still, health concerns are real, especially the fear of kids shedding the virus as they go to and from school.
In British Columbia, the province reopened schools in June on a voluntary basis. About a third of students went back in the first week, and the trial did not spark new cases.
Even with a dry run to get ready for September, and B.C.‘s overall success against the virus, provincial health officials have said a hybrid model of in-class and online learning will be “very likely” necessary.
Very likely, but still not a certainty. B.C., like Ontario and most provinces, has yet to say what the plan will actually be.
Caution is obviously necessary; things could change in August. But a greater urgency from governments on figuring out – and announcing – school plans is needed, in order to reassure parents, and to help them plan the juggling act they will likely be forced to continue this fall.
Shutting down society in March was the right thing to do. But Canada’s economy can’t fully recover until schools reopen and parents are relieved of the triple burden of working, overseeing home-schooling, and child-rearing.
As society reopens, schools have not been the top priority they need and deserve to be.
Public health is paramount, and caution is a must, but more should have already been done to tackle the challenge of reopening schools, for the benefit of students, parents and the country as a whole.