As school boards across Ontario consider reopening in September, parents worry about two things: Will my children and I be safe, and will my children learn appropriately?
In many of Ontario’s large urban centres, children may not be safe in classrooms in September. Among the returning cohort, there will almost certainly be asymptomatic carriers of COVID-19. The science is clear that asymptomatic children have unknowingly spread the virus to others in schools.
Otto Helve, a pediatric infectious disease expert, correctly observed: “Outbreaks in schools are inevitable.”
New outbreaks despite safety measures
Experience around the world confirms Helve’s point. More than 20 countries reopened schools this past spring, using a variety of infection control strategies. But virus outbreaks occurred anyway; schools in China, Israel and South Korea had to close again.
In Germany, the proportion of children under age 19 that comprised the cluster of new infections doubled in a two-month period after schools reopened. A few countries never closed schools. Virus outbreaks occurred.
Canada’s experience is similar. A reopened elementary school in Trois-Rivières, Québec, had nine of 11 students infected after one contracted the virus, despite using prevention measures. COVID-19 appeared in British Columbia schools after they reopened in June. Similar outbreaks occurred in daycare centres outside of Toronto and Montréal.
The Ottawa School Board proposes to reopen its 72 schools five days a week in September. Dr. Vera Etches, Ottawa’s medical officer of health, supports the board. She recommended “starting with five days of school in-person and working to make this as safe as possible through reasonable and feasible infection prevention and control measures ….”
The error of Dr. Etches’ analysis begins with an unsafe premise — schools must reopen in September.
The first question should be whether schools can implement public health measures by September that will reduce risk of virus outbreaks to acceptable proportions. The answer to that question in many Ontario municipalities is no.
The human, physical and financial resources required to contain the inevitable outbreaks are large, complicated, contested and not in place. Time is necessary to plan, organize and implement. Time ran out months ago.
Other Ontario school boards are considering hybrid solutions — bringing back half their students on Mondays and Tuesdays, the other half on Thursdays and Fridays, and variations of this concept. This idea is unsafe.
Asymptomatic carriers among the returnees could transmit the virus to their classmates whether half, a third or a quarter of the student body attends.
Ontario boards failed woefully to educate students online from March through June. Since the proposal contains no measures to improve the education children will get online, the hybrid concept will simply continue this failure. It will also compromise face-to-face classrooms by deleting 60 per cent of instruction in them.
Reopen in January at the earliest
Ontario school boards should plan to reopen schools in January or September 2021. They should start now to renovate schools for safety protocols. Boards should work with the federal and provincial governments to develop resources to test each child for the virus every day.
Several companies and academic laboratories are developing easy-to-use diagnostic tests that could be used by schools, including a spit-test that looks for traces of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Federal and provincial governments should organize, fund and fast-track getting this, and similar tests, into schools for January or September 2021.
Boards should invest heavily now in remote education. Remote learning is a relatively new science that arose out of a revolution in educational theory and produced distinctive educational practices. It is interactive, student-centred, digital — altogether different from reproducing existing classroom practices online, as occurred from March through June.
Specialists to help teachers transform their courses into proper remote formats need to be hired, tech resources for universal and equal access must be purchased and people trained how to use them. Educators and staff should be trained in remote learning techniques.
Teachers, students need support
All of this will take time, leadership and investments. Teachers cannot become experts at remote education on their own. And students need help to adapt.
Remote teaching, done properly, could allow children to learn. It does not replace the social experiences children get in school or the care-giving relief schools provide for working parents.
Children should return to school when the virus is sufficiently under control in their community and their school is made safe. Until then — which will not be this September — boards should concentrate on providing leadership and resources to make schools safe and enable superior remote learning.
The investments made now will pay back for years to come as elementary and secondary education is transformed.
We have in front of us a challenge and an opportunity, both of monumental importance. We have tens of thousands of great teachers waiting to rise to the challenge. Boards should empower them to seize the opportunity.
Joseph Magnet is a Professor of Law at the University of Ottawa.