Editorial: COVID-19 questions about the back-to-school proposal

Ottawa-Carleton District School Board trustees said on Friday that they want students physically in class full-time in the fall. The English Catholic board also wants the kids back five days a week. Education Minister Stephen Lecce more or less agrees. Thousands of stressed-out parents – and maybe some students, as well – are breathing loud sighs of relief.

There are miles to go before this happens, though, and a tonne of concerning questions:

• First, will the province ultimately agree? We won’t know until next month, when officials review Ontario’s overall COVID-19 patterns. Meanwhile, school boards are supposed to prepare for three scenarios: a full reopening, with enhanced safety measures; online classes only; or a blend, under which students would physically attend classes a few days a week and learn online the rest of the time. That blended model is logistically nightmarish.

• Can the province, and local boards, actually fund a full-time return with proper safety measures? In-class learning in the COVID-era means physical distancing for students, enhanced cleaning processes at schools, and extra protections for teachers, classroom assistants and other staff. Who’s paying? Will the inequities that already exist between local schools on such things as fundraising lead to serious health risks in some institutions but not in others?

• What happens if a child in the class get sick? Will the entire cohort have to self-isolate for 14 days, leading to more disruption than if they’d been at home in the first place?

• What is the anticipated risk to other demographic groups from having students gather indoors for hours each day, five days a week? The virus does most damage to the elderly, frail and immune-compromised. Racialized groups appear harder hit than whites. Students physically in schools, with a higher chance of exposure to the disease, may inflict added health costs on others. How do we balance these risks?

• If grade 12 students can attend school full-time, why not college and university students? They understand physical distancing norms, and they are paying large sums to attend fall courses that are (currently) online only. Should Ottawa Public Health endorse a return to class for them?

Everyone is rightly concerned about children’s mental health if they are not in school, and the toll on their families. Good. But we must also learn as much as possible about the full price of reopening school doors – both monetary and health-wise – for all.

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