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  • Tracy Sherlock

Schools may reopen before summer, but it's unlikely

Updated: Apr 17, 2020

Dr. Bonnie Henry said the effects of school closures on students who are struggling can affect generations to come. (Photo by B.C. government.)

It’s still possible, though highly unlikely, that students could be back in classrooms before the end of this school year.

Re-opening schools was top of mind for B.C. Premier John Horgan when he was asked this week if COVID-19 restrictions might be lifted. He spoke first about the possibility of reopening schools, before mentioning elective surgeries or other parts of the economy.

“We’ve seen some really good success and a level of collaboration between educators, superintendents, school board trustees, parents, children, the whole continuum of components of our K-12 education system working cooperatively to try to find a way forward through this virtual period,” Horgan said. “And also having those preliminary discussions about how we would, If the curve continues, and we get positive signals from Dr. Henry and the modelling in the weeks ahead that we would be able to look at bringing kids back to classrooms.”

But then he added that he wasn’t ready to set a date and said instead that he would rely on health experts and see how the numbers go.

The CBC quoted Education Minister Rob Fleming saying it’s possible classrooms could re-open, but B.C. would need to have no new cases and have reduced the risk of another outbreak to almost zero.

The chances of that happening before June are slim. Around the world, 91 per cent of school-aged children are out of school – that’s 1.5 billion students – UNESCO reports.

A key piece of evidence before any decision is made about returning students to school will be discovering whether children can transmit COVID-19. At this point, nothing is confirmed, although a B.C. Centre for Disease Control document says there are no documented cases of children bringing an infection into the home, from school or otherwise. Children seem to usually get only mild illness themselves.

Nonetheless, getting kids back in schools is also top of mind for provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry.

“We know that if you have school closures, for them to be particularly effective, in an influenza pandemic, it needs to be for a fairly long time. We’re seeing that as well with coronavirus,” Henry said in her April 13 briefing.

She gave a special nod to vulnerable students, saying it’s important to get them back to school as soon as possible. That includes students whose families may be struggling to afford food, or who might have learning challenges or who might not have a computer or Wi-Fi.

“We know that children who are falling behind when we have prolonged school closures, they may never catch up in their lifetime and that has effects on their health and on the health of their families going forward for many generations,” she said.

Referring to a paper she wrote after another outbreak, she said it looked at how to organize school closures to minimize the spread of the virus at the same time as supporting children who are most in need.

The Vancouver School Board has continued to provide 3,000 healthy meals to students each week and has already loaned out about 800 devices to students who don’t have access to a computer at home.

So far, three Vancouver schools are open to provide child care to about 130 heath care workers and first responders. There organized with a five to one children-to-adult ratio and social distancing is in place.

I don’t think it’s completely far-fetched, given Dr. Henry’s comments, to imagine a day where students with special needs are given some access to schools as a way to gradually return all students to schools. Students in Grade 12 would also be high on the list for a return to school if a gradual return is warranted.

Several European countries are planning a phased reopening of schools, including Denmark, Norway and Germany. Denmark and Norway are starting with the very youngest students who need childcare, while Germany is giving a priority to students who have to write exams. Of note, Germany is also reopening hair salons, but will keep bars and cafes closed and large gatherings banned until at least August 31.

The world, including B.C.’s leaders, will be watching closely.

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