Sending children back to school during the Covid-19 pandemic concerns us all!

Posted on Monday, September 7, 2020

Author: Prof. Jennifer Wallner and Prof. Patrick Leblond

Associate Professor, Faculty of Social Sciences, uOttawa

Faculty Affiliate, ISSP
Associate Professor, Graduate School of Public and International Affairs and CN – Paul M. Tellier Chair on Business and Public Policy, uOttawa

On August 17, we convened health, education and economic experts on The Benefits & Challenges of Sending Children Back to School webinar, to discuss the benefits and challenges of sending children back to school in person this fall. We wanted to bring together a wider range of people who rarely have the occasion to speak face to face. Here’s what we found out.

To begin with, reopening schools for in-person teaching concerns us all! The only way that sending children back to school can work and not go back into lockdown is if community transmission remains low. In other words, the curve has to remain flat!

For that to happen, governments (federal and provincial), businesses, municipalities, school boards, etc. have to work together and coordinate their actions; it cannot simply be left to individual schools and families to make this work.

Take a simple but important example: workers who have no paid sick days and cannot afford to stay home to take care of their children when they are sick are likely to send them to school anyway, risking a Covid-19 outbreak. The same issue applies to supporting educational staff and occasional teachers, who rarely have sick-day protection; they might show up at school even if they are not feeling well, hoping that they just have a cold or the regular flu.

Yes, schools can limit the damage by creating isolated “bubbles” (assuming that they have the means to do so) and public health authorities can perform effective contact tracing and testing. But wouldn’t it be better if we prevented such a scenario in the first place?

Paid sick leave is not without cost, however. So, the business community and governments have to figure out who will pay what amount and for how long. The question about sharing costs applies to a number of other issues not directly related to schools’ reopening. For instance, what do we do with businesses (e.g., bars, restaurants, nightclubs, theaters, airlines, etc.) that need to have limits imposed on their activities to prevent community transmission? Do we help them financially? Do we just let them fail? And, again, who pays, how much and for how long?

Answers to these questions only arrive through planning and coordination between all stakeholders to produce solutions. These solutions can and should vary in different parts of the country depending on the risk of an outbreak. Such community-wide cooperation would go a long way to reduce the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic.

Given the challenges of reopening schools, why not just keep children at home and teach them online? Wouldn’t it be a better way to keep the curve flat and allow the economy to keep recovering? But that’s a false choice! For a large share of Canadian families, keeping their children at home is simply not an option.

And even for those who could keep their children home, it is not without costs. When parents stay home, it costs the Canadian labour force, which loses productive workers – mostly women – who decide to give up their jobs and careers to take care of their children. In many sectors, qualified workers are already hard to find.

It also costs our children, who often receive a lower quality education since online teaching has not been as effective as in-person teaching (a lot of work and investment need to be done to increase that effectiveness). Staying at home also affects our children’s social development as well as their mental health. These immediate costs will also have long-term effects on our society and economy.

These costs will not be borne equally across society. They will deepen existing inequalities, as the first lockdown already made so clear. Not only can lower income families not afford to keep their children at home, but they cannot afford the necessary resources for online schooling: computers or tablets, high-speed internet, quiet spaces for studying, parents’ time to supervise and coordinate homework as well as troubleshoot computer-related problems.

So, for the good of this country and its people, schools have to reopen so that our children are educated in person by their teachers and other professionals. This must happen in a way where schools are safe and healthy environments for students and staff.

Provincial governments, school boards and schools across the country have now announced their return-to-school plans. We will quickly find out what works and what doesn’t. Therefore, we should be ready to share information and ideas, learn from each other, and adapt plans to quickly adopt successful practices and ditch bad ones.

The most important challenge for all Canadians in the coming months will be to make sure that we do not go back into lockdown as a result of community outbreaks following children’s return to school, as has been the case in some other countries. This countrywide challenge cannot be left to individual schools and families. We all have to be in this together, for the sake of a healthy, prosperous and equal Canadian society.

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