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  • Tracy Sherlock

Plan to reopen schools causes controversy, concerns

Dr. Bonnie Henry waits as B.C. Premier John Horgan announces that schools will reopen on June 1.

On June 1, schools will reopen in B.C., but it will be optional for students to attend.

Younger students, in Kindergarten through Grade 5, will be able to attend part-time, perhaps on alternating days. Older students, in Grades 6 through 12, will also be able to attend part-time, but only about one day per week.

I’m not going to second-guess our Provincial Health Officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry. If she says it’s safe to go to school, I believe her. If my own children – now 24 and 27 – were still school age, would I send them back? Well, that would depend.

If they, or someone in our home, had a compromised immune system, perhaps due to asthma or diabetes or allergies, I wouldn’t send them back right away. If they were on the autism spectrum or had a learning disability, I would consider the individual child. If returning to school would ease their stress, I would send them. If returning to school would make them more anxious, I would not.

If my child was in Grade 12, I think I would encourage them to go back, even if it’s only for one day a week. As Dr. Henry said, it's an opportunity for them to see their friends and say goodbye to their teachers. I’m hopeful that each school is working on a plan to celebrate their Grade 12s and being present in school could be at least a part of that.

Officials will be watching closely

B.C.’s public health officials, led by Dr. Henry, will be watching what happens when schools reopen very closely. She has also tried to reassure everyone that it’s safe to send “our precious commodities for the future” back to school.

“What we also know is that children are much less likely to get infected with it and they’re much less likely to have severe illness,” Dr. Henry said. “The rates of children getting infected around the world still is very low. For us, it’s less than two per cent of all of the cases and that’s about the same as we’re seeing in all of the other countries.”

It's much more likely that an adult will infect a child than that a child will infect an adult, she said.

One line in the guidelines for reopening schools lit my twitter feed on fire this weekend. It says: “A student may still receive in-person instruction if another person in their home has symptoms of common cold, influenza, COVID-19, or other infectious respiratory disease, but they remain asymptomatic.”

So a child with no symptoms who lives with someone who has symptoms can go to school, the guidelines say.

“We know that that there are many reasons why somebody might have a respiratory illness in the home, and unless they have been told that they are a contact of covid-19 from public health, there is no reason to keep healthy children out of school if there is somebody in their household who has some other illness,” Dr. Henry said.

There will be zero tolerance for anyone coming to school sick

There will be no tolerance for anyone coming to school who is sick and public health officials will be "very cautious," Dr. Henry said.

Teachers are worried, and I don’t blame them. The risks will be minimized, but not eliminated.

Minimizing the risks is why only half the number of children or one-fifth of high school students will come to school on any given day. It's unlikely secondary students will change classes as they usually do — it's more likely they will be with a home room teacher, making sure they're passing every class.

Some teachers are concerned about the size of their classrooms and tables and whether physical distancing will be possible. Others are concerned that there is not enough data about how covid-19 spreads among children because schools around the world have mostly been shut down during the pandemic. Some worry that cuts to the education system have left it unable to cope with things like extra cleaning.

Schools a lifeline for some families

Education Advocate Cindy Dalglish said on Twitter that for some families, schools are a lifeline.

“Children with special needs may need the in-person support, there are vulnerable kids who rely on support from schools for food and personal safety, and mental health and well-being is as important as physical safety,” Dalglish tweeted.

She raises another important point, which is that June is a dry run for September.

“While it may seem like our families are being used as guinea pigs and that’s scary, it's important that we have a way forward.”

Teachers are off in August. If we’re going to open in September, the planning needs to be done now. If we wait until September to plan and don’t open until October, there could soon be a resurgence of the virus and schools could be closed again. If that were to last all winter, kids could lose an entire year of in-class instruction. By opening in June, they will at least have some time together.

B.C. Teachers’ Federation President Teri Mooring recognized teachers' concerns about teachers who are at high-risk, the extra workload due to teaching in-person and online, and the availability of personal protective equipment in a series of tweets.

Another serious concern has to be a mysterious inflammatory syndrome, seen in children in New York, Montreal and Europe, now being called multi-system inflammatory syndrome in children (MISC.)

Dr. Henry said she was not aware of any MISC cases in B.C., where we have had 69 children under 19 infected with covid-19 and three hospitalizations. B.C. has issued an alert for pediatricians to watch for it.

“The challenge that we have is this is a relatively rare syndrome still,” Dr. Henry said. “We still don't know a whole lot about it. We are of course watching carefully.”

Whether or not to send your children back to school is a personal decision. The numbers are likely to be small, but it is a chance to try out the new ways, say hi to old friends and wish a fond farewell to those who are graduating.

As Dr. Henry said: "Only you know your own risk and the precautions you need to take for yourself and your family."

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