Parents or not, we all have a stake in schools reopening safely

OPINION: Parents, kids, teachers, and school staff will be on the front lines this fall. But the way it plays out will affect everyone
By Diane Peters - Published on Aug 27, 2020
Ontario has more than 2 million elementary- and secondary-school students and around 130,000 teachers. (iStock/surpasspro)

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When parents like me get out and about this summer, making distanced, casual conversation with non-parents, certain questions inevitably come up. “What do you think about back to school?” and “What are you going to do about school — are you sending your kids?”

I usually give polite answers about the general whereabouts of my two — one is starting Grade 11, and the other is heading into Grade 8, and, yep, both will be setting foot in classrooms — and my impressions of the latest provincial and local plans and virus-related research. Sometimes, though, I say what I really want to say and ask my own questions back: “What do you think of back to school?” and “What are you going to do if this whole back-to-school thing goes sideways?”

While parents, kids, teachers, and school staff will be on the front lines of the great fall 2020 experiment we’re calling back to school, the way it plays out will affect everyone. In the short term, if school openings trigger outbreaks or a second wave, that’ll change the day-to-day lives of health-care workers, business owners, seniors, people who live in underserved neighbourhoods, and transit riders. Basically everyone. Long term, it’ll affect us all, in small and big ways — this is, after all, the education of our youth we’re talking about.

Restarting schools is arguably the single most ambitious reopening that’s happened yet during this pandemic. Ontario has more than 2 million elementary- and secondary-school students and around 130,000 teachers. Another 20,000 or so administrators and early childhood educators work in schools. Then there are the thousands who work as custodians and as bus drivers, as lunch monitors and at front desks.

These millions of Ontarians must coexist in big (often old) buildings for hours on end, five days a week. They’ll be trying to teach and learn, be eating lunch and using the bathroom, and filing in and out of rooms from the fall to the spring.

This is infection control being tested on a large scale, in every community in the province big enough to support a school. We know that keeping people virus free in long-term-care facilities, hospitals, factories, and farms has been tough. Schools likely won’t be different — and they’ll all be reopening at once in Ontario and across the country, too.

“At some point, someone is going to go to school with COVID-19,” says Isaac Bogoch, an infectious-disease physician and scientist with the University of Toronto and the University Health Network. “At some point during the school year, someone will transmit to another person in a school. It’s going to happen. We all know it.”

While research shows that children, especially younger ones, don’t get sick and transmit the virus as often as adults, it does happen. “Kids can get it. Kids can spread this virus,” Bogoch says. “The vast majority of kids do well, but there are sad cases where kids are hospitalized.”

According to a Public Health Ontario report from July, just 5 per cent of COVID-19 cases in the province were in children, and Ontario had reported one death. (However, just last week, Quebec reported that a 19-year-old boy with no underlying health conditions had died from the virus.)

Although kids may not pass the virus around as efficiently, some will get sick. Some teachers and staff will get sick. And they could pass it on family, friends, and strangers.

“There is a ripple effect this is going to have,” says Bogoch. “Nothing is going to happen in isolation. It’ll have a ripple effect in families that might have an elderly parent, or people for, whatever reason, could develop a more severe illness. It also has a ripple effect on our health-care system.”

Consider the economic impact, too, of parents taking time off work for quarantine. Meanwhile, many families, to mitigate risk, may reduce their public activities, such as visiting seniors and going to stores.

Many advocacy groups have taken issue with the government’s directives and funding for back to school and with the plans from local boards and have been recruiting parents to call their MPPs. Organizations speaking up against the government’s reopening plan, such as the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario, criticize it based on their concerns about the health and safety of students and teachers.

Some groups are thinking bigger. Showing Up For Racial Justice Toronto, for instance, ran a virtual advocacy event on August 18 that called on non-parents to advocate for a new reopening plan. “There are THREE WEEKS left before school starts, and the provincial government has refused to commit the resources necessary for a safe re-opening,” said its Facebook event page. “This endangers children, youth, parents, caregivers, Ed. workers and the province as a whole.”

“We try to appeal to a broader range of people,” says SURJ Toronto’s Tatiana Wugalter, who was involved in the event. “I don’t have kids myself, but I care deeply about issues of deepening inequality.” COVID-19 has disproportionately affected low-income and racialized people; a flawed reopening strategy could well lead to outbreaks in communities already suffering both outbreaks and job losses.

“This is about more than just parents and kids in schools,” Wugalter says. “It’s about communities. It’s about all of us.”

And messing up the 2020-21 school year would bring more than the risk of outbreaks — school closures and a return to a jumbled virtual learning approach could compromise education in the short and long term. Education is what keeps us economically competitive; education lowers crime rates. We need students nearing the end of their high-school years to wrap things up successfully so they can get to work.

We do not need a young generation traumatized by being left behind. Public education, imperfect as it is, can level out some economic disparities. And kids need school for a variety of reasons. “There are so many other benefits of schools,” says Bogoch. “Food security, safety. The social and emotional elements. Schools provide a lot more than education.”

The Ontario government says its back-to-school plan is the best in the country. A spokesperson for the Ministry of Education told TVO.org via email that “our plan to safely reopen schools has been informed by the best medical and scientific minds in the country.” As a parent, I’m not convinced enough money, teachers, resources, or renovations have been put in place to do this right.

But enough from the likes of me. People with grown kids, aunts and uncles, people who own businesses, health-care workers, and pretty much everybody else should be looking at the plan for fall 2020. They should be assessing how it will affect them, their community, and their future. If they speak up about the larger social and economic impacts, that’s a message far harder to ignore.

Kids in school — or not in school — is something we all need to care about. If we’re all in this together, that togetherness should span family status. As Wugalter says of the fall reopening: “We all have a stake in it.”

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