Ontario recently unveiled its plan to reopen schools in fall across the province, announcing that elementary school students and many high school students will return to the classroom full-time in September. The announcement comes just six weeks before the scheduled reopening of schools. While the announcement regarding the school year was expected in early August, it was a surprise for many parents, students, and teachers as it came way early and with a lot of new procedures, practices, and guidelines.
About two million students at 4,800 publicly-funded schools in Ontario have been sitting at home, away from regular classrooms since March 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the province.
What is the Reopening Plan?
- All elementary school children in kindergarten through grade 8 to have conventional in-person learning, five days a week.
- Parents can decide if they want to send their children to school or continue with remote learning.
- Secondary schools in designated boards will open on an adapted model, with class cohorts of approximately 15 students, on alternating schedules with at least 50% of in-class instructional days.
The remaining school boards in Ontario that are not under the designated list will be allowed to reopen five days a week with full attendance. The province noted that secondary schools in these boards “typically have small enrollment.”
All school boards will adopt a timetable and emphasize on cohorting of students as much as possible. This means, students will be grouped and will be encouraged to stay in the same group to limit direct and indirect contact with other students.
- Extra hygiene like frequent hand washing, cohorting and social distancing to be promoted at all schools; limited visitors and pre-registration of all guests.
- Non-medical masks will be mandatory for students in Grade 4 to Grade 12. Students in kindergarten to Grade 3 will be encouraged, but not required, to wear masks in common spaces.
- Students with medical conditions or valid reasons may be exempted from wearing masks.
- School staff to be provided with all appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE).
- The Ontario government to provide PPE and cleaning products to school boards.
Covid-19 did not just impact our economy and employment structure worldwide but it has also affected the school system. From going into an extended spring break to an early end of the school year, we were forced to change our lifestyle to meet the needs of children at home. Now the uncertainty and confusion looming over how the schools will reopen and function with masked kids and teachers with PPE have stirred quite a big debate, dilemmas, and questions. It is still unclear how safe the environment would be for students returning to school this fall. When can we say – It is safe to send kids back to school? We don’t know how quick or slow the spread of the virus would be, whether we will be free of coronavirus or whether we will have a second wave of Covid-19.
It has been a rollercoaster ride for many parents balancing childcare and online schooling along with work/business, and other household chores. In families where both parents are working, someone has to take a back seat and give time to children sitting at home. The same goes for single mothers or fathers who have to keep the fuel burning along with home-based learning and care that kids need. We must not forget that this is a challenging situation for children as well who do not understand why they are made to sit at home, why they are not allowed to go to parks or why physical distancing is so important now. Kids with special needs are the ones struggling more than anyone and it is especially hard for their caregivers to keep them sane at this difficult time. It is a situation none had anticipated and while we are doing good in keeping the virus controlled, we are not completely free of it.
Many parents who were demanding full-time school instead of home-based learning, are happy with the new reopening plan unveiled by the Ontario government. According to them, someone has to be present at home with children, and working full-time while simultaneously caring for them is simply not possible — even when working from home.
According to Statistics Canada’s June Labour Force Survey, the employment recovery has been “slowest for mothers with school-aged children,” with employment rising 5.2 per cent for women and 6.4 per cent for men with children younger than six. For mothers of children aged six to 17, employment remains below pre-pandemic levels, and women with children are more likely to be working less than half their usual hours.
While the parents are still debating on whether it is safe to send children to school, not sending them will definitely impact the way parents work. It is not a sustainable way of keeping the jobs going. Well, the employers can have such part-time employees for a little while but not for long term. And it will immediately have huge, economic and social consequences.
The struggle of parents with respect to their jobs does not mean they do not care for their children and are desperate to send them to school. At the end of the day, we need money to keep our fuel burning, we have to provide for our family. Some people have relatives to look after kids while they go to work, while some live alone and have no one to take care of their children. Some are still starting their career and have no other option but to take up whatever comes their way. It is a difficult, challenging situation for many families struggling to make ends meet and also provide for their children.
Homeschooling is another option that many parents are exploring. With the uncertainty of how kids are going to maintain a safe distance at school and whether or not they can sit with masks is one of the reasons some parents feel kids would be better off at home with no risk of getting infected.
No decision is right or wrong – parents have the right to decide what’s best for their children. While some would like to wait and watch how things go in September, some would send their kids immediately and some would be forced to send kids to school due to the nature of their work. Let’s not judge any parent. We are all in this together. The best we can do is support each other, maintain social distancing, and continue to adapt to the new normal.
So what is it the real challenge for schools, parents, and children?
The biggest challenge lies in making the right decisions especially because there is no proof that the virus cannot infect kids. The next challenge is keeping students six feet apart from each other – that means keeping desks apart and having school buses to operate at half capacity. While older students can still understand and keep a mask on but little ones would hardly keep them for a few minutes. The requirement of additional staff to keep a check on children would mean adding more to the crowd and thus increasing the chances of spreading coronavirus.
Apart from children, teachers too run the risk of getting infected. It will be a difficult call for them too who would be required to wear PPE in classrooms all the time. No matter how safe it looks, it is definitely not an easy thing to do especially when you have to deal with children and do a lot of talking.
Also, an asymptomatic teacher can infect many others, including young children and those with special needs. Due to the contagious nature of this virus, some high-risk students and staff may have to stay at home; also communities with higher cases of Covid-19 may have to take different routes as regards reopening. There is no way a school can adopt a foolproof way to eliminate the spread completely, therefore having all students come to school together on the same days can mean taking too many risks. Many would agree that having small batches of students attending part-time is a safer option.
Apart from just school-based learning, we must also focus on the mental health of children who are sitting at home, in closed environments, trying to understand why everyone wants to stay away from them. We must address their concerns and make them understand the impact of Covid-19 on people, businesses, and economies. Before schools reopen, we must explain to them about new procedures and practices at school. They must be told that practicing safe distance is not offensive, it is the new normal. Teachers, staff, and students are required to wear masks and maintain social distance because of the advisory issued to avoid the spread of infection and not because there is something wrong with them. Children are not used to staying indoors, away from friends, school, and other recreational activities. Thus, we must understand that their irritable behaviour is very much due to the changed circumstances worldwide. We must help them embrace the new normal.
These are unprecedented times, something we haven’t experienced before and therefore devising plans that can keep everyone safe can be a bit challenging. The authorities have a big responsibility towards the children as well as parents; taking any kind of decision would mean considering all factors, consequences, and follow up plans. This is not going to be an easy year. Let us hope that schools can provide a safe environment for all the children and staff returning to school and also provide good remote learning opportunities to those wishing to keep children at home.
What is your opinion regarding the reopening of schools? Would you send your kids to school in September? Please comment below.
—- Manali Arora
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