No politician in Canada would put it this bluntly, but the fact is that the return to school this fall will be a situation in which important theories about the transmission and virulence of COVID-19 will be tested in the field on a large number of subjects, and new data will be collected.
An experiment on schoolchildren, in other words.
This is not meant to alarm parents. An experiment is vastly different from a gamble; Canadian governments are not rolling the dice and hoping for the best.
But the reality is that, after months of correctly urging Canadians to stay away from each other, especially indoors, and to wear masks when they can’t maintain a minimal physical distance, the same elected officials are saying it is possible to put children into school – some masked, some not – while keeping them, their teachers and their parents safe.
It is also a fact that the return to classrooms is being justified on the basis of COVID-19 research that is preliminary and still evolving. We know more than ever about the virus, its effects and its process of transmission. But, as the Toronto Hospital for Sick Children said in its recent Guidance for School Reopening, there is still a “knowledge gap.”
The return to school, the Sick Kids report says, “represents an opportunity to conduct rigorous research that will help close the knowledge gap and will therefore continue to improve and inform decision-making during the school year.”
No wonder, then, that some parents and teachers are anxious. Many are pushing governments to shrink class sizes, hire more teachers, enforce more mask-wearing and, in some cases, to postpone the start of the school year to ensure that every possible precaution is in place.
In British Columbia last week, two fathers filed a lawsuit alleging that the province’s reopening plan treats students and teachers as “guinea pigs.” They are demanding that the government implement stricter physical-distancing measures, reduce class sizes and require students to wear masks in all classrooms. Both men suffer from underlying medical conditions that make them vulnerable to COVID-19.
In Quebec, a group of parents has filed a lawsuit asking that virtual learning be available for all students, and not just for those who provide a doctor’s note exempting them from attending class in person.
In Ontario last week, three teachers’ unions said the province’s reopening plan violates the Occupational Health and Safety Act, and that the Labour Ministry needs to cap class sizes at 20 in order to make physical distancing possible and keep teachers safe.
And in Ottawa last week, the Liberal government announced it was giving the provinces $2-billion to spend on smaller classes, better ventilation, more protective equipment and other measures that can help make the return to school as safe as possible.
“Over the past week or so, I’ve heard from so many Liberal MPs, so many parents across the country, who are still extremely worried about how that reopening is going to go,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said.
This page has argued that the public-health justification for reopening schools is sound.
The sharp decline in new cases and deaths in Canada is proof that physical distancing and mask-wearing work. Community transmission has been reined in for the most part, and there is consistent evidence that the effects of the disease on children are very limited.
There is also evidence, outlined in the Sick Kids report, that keeping children out of school for long periods leads to severe health and welfare impacts.
In short, there are concrete, defensible reasons to believe that the decision to reopen schools is the right one. There will be outbreaks, no doubt. But they can be contained if the proper procedures are followed, and rapid testing and contact tracing are available.
At the same time, however, governments must acknowledge that they don’t have all the answers. The need to reopen is certain; the precise means to do so safely is not. Governments need to listen to parents and teachers, and they must be ready to change course if conditions change, or new evidence emerges.
Governments are right to base their decisions on science and evidence, which means they have to be prepared to alter their plans if the evidence demands it.
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