I want kids in schools this fall. Before we get there, let’s agree on the conditions that need to be met. First, community transmission needs to remain near zero. Confidence to have children in school, and teachers teaching them, without rampant fear of infection is necessary. This means “we” can’t screw up progress. It means that we may have to do without some of the things we enjoy. It means that we need to put up with PPE when we’re out in public. It means that international borders must remain closed. Yes, these are inconveniences, but they get our kids back in schools.
Our kids need school not just for content, but for everything else – social development, physical development, routine and the like. Parents need this too. That means students need to be at school everyday (here’s a good blog post to highlight these: https://takingitdaybyday.com/mental-health-effects-of-the-pandemic/). Start with a plan in September that we can live with for the entire year (unless public health worsens and we need to lock down again).
Kids need to be socialized to wear masks, shields, gloves and/or other PPE. Parents, that’s our job right now. Find ones that your kids like. Make them wear it. Normalize it. Teach them not to fidget with them on.
Kids need to also become used to the new routines at school. Staggered entry for the first two weeks of school can help take small numbers of students and get them used to the new routines and such.
There will definitely need to be new rules established. Places where students congregate with other students (gyms, libraries, play grounds, washrooms etc.) all need to have plans. How these places are cleaned, how to ensure only a small fraction of students are allowed in at one time, and so on, require monitoring. Decisions need to be made on who does this monitoring.
Teachers that pedagogically enjoy team teaching may have restrictions in doing so. Students will be confined to their classmates, and not classmates in other classrooms. That’s easy in some instances, but more difficult in others.
Students need to be active. They can’t stay in their classroom all day. There would need to schedules developed for that activity. There will need to be plans to cover teachers lunch and prep time. Here too, you’ve got some problems, because the French teacher that comes in to teach French, and thus covers the home teacher’s prep time, is potentially a source of transmission between classes. As child care facilities will say, you need one dedicated cover staff/volunteer per class and they only do one class. Is that feasible? These things are part of the normal day, but normal isn’t close to us yet.
Breakfast/lunch programs will need to adapt to a single-serve mindset. This makes these programs more difficult to administer and more costly, but we know the benefits that they bring to students that need them.
Importantly, what happens if somebody falls ill? Do we close schools? How rapidly can pop up testing sites get to these schools to test everyone in them? Test, trace, isolate plans need to be devised. Do we do the temperature checks? Can we trust that parents will keep their kids at home if they have the sniffles? Flu season will be upon us by mid-Fall, and the symptoms associated with the common flu are similar to the corona virus. There will be mass panic. What are the communications plans? What contingencies are in place?
For students that can’t or won’t come to school, what is the online plan? There should be singular and uniform direction. While the education sector should be applauded for moving massive amounts of students online last winter, the truth of the matter is that it was unevenly applied. Some teachers had synchronous instruction time for students. Some teachers had asynchronous instruction for students which required far more parental oversight than I care to even admit. I have 3 kids, and I would say one of them had sufficient instruction. That’s not a great ratio. If schools shut down again, we need to mandate synchronous instruction. We should have studied what worked and what didn’t. Boards that surveyed parents should make those results public.
And to our amazing teachers, can the system account for their health and safety? Will their sick plans be modified to cover them if they contract the illness? Many boards of education are reporting shortages of qualified supply teachers. The surplus that everyone thinks we have doesn’t exist. What happens is that teachers in some boards have to double cover, but we can’t do that anymore in pandemic response. We could have a massive HR problem with qualified teachers on our hands.
This isn’t a complete list, but to those who think that sending to kids to school is simple, it is not so. It’s possible to get students back in the fall. We all have things we need to do to make it happen. Let’s start by getting our kids used to their masks, and let’s give our decision-makers some room to make difficult decisions.