It just doesn’t make sense to reopen schools now

Ontario’s public-health and political leaders have not earned any benefit of the doubt when it comes to risk management
By Matt Gurney - Published on May 27, 2021
Premier Doug Ford has asked for input on school reopening in an open letter. (Lars Hagberg/CP)

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It was just last week here that I proposed ending the school year early and aiming for a safe restart of in-class learning in September. That column got a lot of reaction, mostly good, mixed in with some respectful disagreement. The issue has remained a live one. Provincial and local officials are talking openly about some kind of a restart of in-class learning come June. Premier Doug Ford has asked for input from various stakeholders in an open letter. This is obviously being considered.

You can see why. Ontario’s third wave is ebbing quickly. It will be weeks, at the earliest, before the hospitals are decompressed, but every indicator is moving in the right direction. There is a lot of optimism out there, and it seems to be panning out.

But here’s the thing. The government simply has not earned the trust of the people. Opening the schools is a risk. That is no longer controversial. The government's own experts have said so.

I was actually shocked last week how little this was remarked upon. The role of schools in furthering transmission of COVID-19 has been hotly debated throughout the pandemic. We know that there have always been cases within schools, among both staff and students. But what we have not been confident about was whether those cases were just mirroring the broader infection rate of the community or if they were actually drivers of viral transmission. This has been studied closely and passionately debated. I myself didn’t really have a strong opinion on this and didn't hesitate to send my kids back to in-class learning when the schools opened in September. 

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But last week, the provincial public-health leadership came right out and said that reopening the schools would increase transmission. Perhaps only to a limited, manageable extent — somewhere between 6 and 11 per cent, the models suggest — but they were explicit: reopening in-class learning will increase the spread of the virus.

This is not a slam dunk against reopening schools. Schools are important. Vital! All risks must be balanced against others and managed and mitigated. But last week's statement was, if nothing else, an interesting admission. As I said, I was surprised it was so little remarked upon.

Having remarked upon it, let’s get back to the main narrative here: things are improving. School is important, both for students and for overwhelmed parents juggling virtual schooling (this column's writing has been interrupted twice already — correction, three times — by kids with questions). Further, I suspect, based on a sample size of one (my wife) that teachers also generally would rather be teaching in-class than virtually, all other things being equal.

But all things are not equal. I still just don’t see a strong case for reopening for a few weeks now. It is, at best, a risk. Maybe I’m just several-times-bitten, now shy, but I cannot bring myself to conclude that the provincial public-health and political leaders have earned any benefit of the doubt in terms of risk management. The people who pogo-sticked into the well-marked minefield of the third wave in the winter do not get my benefit of the doubt come spring.

A lot of our arguing about COVID-19 has, sadly if predictably, broken down along pre-existing partisan or ideological lines. I have no time for that. Opening schools to in-class learning, or not, is about analyzing all the factors and making the best possible call. As much as anything else, in Ontario, this is an issue with timing. If we had hit all our third-wave milestones a month or two earlier — cases, hospitalizations, vaccinations — this would likely be a different story. We'd have peaked and begun coming down again with months left in the school year. 

That's not the case today, May 27, COVID Year 1. Because we are currently racing two different clocks. Our vaccine campaign is going well, but we will likely not have maxed out the first-dose part of that campaign until mid to late June. The other clock, of course, is the academic calendar. And guess what? That one also goes until late June.

Given the provincial government's proven track record of foolish optimism, of ignoring warnings and stumbling into costly failures, reopening schools — a now-acknowledged vector of transmission — before we complete the first-dose phase of the vaccination campaign simply does not make sense. You could sell me on doing it once everyone who wanted one had been able to get their first dose. You certainly could’ve sold me on it if we had prioritized education workers for expedited second doses, as well. A functional contact-tracing system would’ve made a nice bonus, too. 

But we don’t have any of those things, and the soonest we could have one of them — a completed first-dose campaign — is basically when we'd expect the schools to shut down for the summer anyway.

It didn't have to be this way. We could have made different decisions, or even the same decisions sooner. But we didn't. It might be worthwhile to open schools in parts of the province with very low (or practically zero) local community transmission. Special education should continue to be prioritized. But in those parts of the province (looking at you, Greater Toronto) that have been hit the hardest and take the longest to recover — there is no realistic path back to a viable safe reopening strategy in the time remaining. 

I understand the frustration and the real harms of keeping the schools closed. I've seen my kids suffer without the routine and social connection school provides. I've seen my wife struggle to do her job, at the standard she holds herself to, on days when Zoom is glitchy and the kids are restless. But opening now, at least in the hot-spot areas, is a leap of faith. Look at our political and public-health leadership, and ask yourself, fellow citizen — how much faith have these people earned? (Oh, and while you're pondering that, check out the latest news on the province stumbling all over itself to rush remaining AstraZeneca doses out the door before they expire — they’ve been caught flatfooted, again, although this issue has been publicly known for weeks.)

And then ask yourself this: What's the smarter play? Betting on the competency of this government, which spent weeks demanding more vaccines while allowing thousands of doses in hand to damn-near expire without a plan to use them? Or keeping schools closed until September, by which point we'll have everyone partially vaccinated and many of us will be double-dosed?

For me, it's an easy decision, though admittedly an unfortunate one. As the old song says, see you in September.

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