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  • Tracy Sherlock

Slow and steady is the right approach to reopening schools

Updated: May 14, 2020

B.C. Education Minister Rob Fleming and Stephanie Higginson, president of the B.C. School Trustees Association, updated the province today. (Photo by BC government.)

In New Zealand, where schools are reopening this week, only between four and six per cent of parents are planning to send their children to class.

If B.C. schools reopened today, would you send your kids? I’ve been mulling over this question and I’m not sure I would, simply because so much remains unknown about covid-19.

Covid-19 appears to have a low infection rate in children and if they do get sick, they tend to get a mild illness, this government document says. It’s unknown what role they play in spreading the virus. This week, reports out of England question whether an inflammatory illness being seen in children is related to covid-19. Covid toes is another bizarre symptom of this disease, mostly found in children.

The virus itself also remains an enigma. We don’t know if people who have had it will have immunity, or for how long. We don’t know when, or if, there will be a vaccine or a treatment.

The language being used in New Zealand, during this first phase of re-opening, is that parents should keep their children at home if they can. Quebec, which announced it will reopen elementary schools on May 11, says the return is “optional” and many parents are voicing doubts about the safety.

Schools are not re-opening everywhere. Washington State has said schools will remain closed for this school year and re-opening plans for Ontario and Saskatchewan did not address schools.

Here in British Columbia, there is no set date to re-open schools. Schools are already providing childcare for the children of essential workers and some vulnerable students. I believe when an opening comes, it will be gradual and measured. It will likely include children who really need to be in school, such as those who risk falling behind due to learning challenges, those whose parents really need to get back to work and those who need specific requirements to graduate on time.

Education Minister Rob Fleming said in a news conference today (April 28) that any return to schools will be guided by provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry. B.C. will also consider the experience of other jurisdictions, like New Zealand, Fleming said.

“Right now we are working with other ministries and our education partners to develop plans for a number of possible scenarios, including resuming some in-class instruction, in a controlled and measured way for the future,” Fleming said.

Given that the return is likely to be gradual and not include all students, many parents will chose to keep their children home and that should be okay.

Stephanie Higginson, president of the B.C. School Trustees Association, urged parents not to be too hard on themselves.

“As a working parent of two young, school-aged children myself, I keep reminding myself that I am not my children’s teacher I am their parent,” Higginson said. “What you are doing is good enough.”

Higginson also thanked school and district staff for being adaptable and nimble.

Missing school for a long time is harder on some kids than on others. Children who live in chaotic homes, where their parents struggle with poverty, addiction or mental health issues, are going to face more detrimental effects than those who live in stable homes. Children who are abused at home may suffer more abuse with less respite.

Children who already have learning difficulties may fall further behind than those who are typical learners. Children with behaviour issues, anxiety or other social-emotional problems are going to feel the ill effects of being away from school more than others.

Unicef put out an alert about children missing routine vaccines because of covid-19 and UNESCO has elaborated on the adverse effects of prolonged school closures on children.

Dr. Bonnie Henry, B.C.’s provincial health officer, said in her April 13 briefing that the effects of school closures are significant.

“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.

So even if returning to school comes with some risk, the benefits for vulnerable children also need to be counted. It’s entirely appropriate that they are top of mind when it comes to reopening.

Another group for whom my heart breaks is Grade 12 students. For your entire school career, Grade 12 graduation is the goal. Most important, of course, is that Grade 12 students graduate and the province has said that will happen. But the class of 2020 will miss out on a significant rite of passage and their transition to post-secondary school may be rocky. I hope they get a celebration of some kind, whenever it has to happen.

Remember, none of us, including our school leaders or our politicians, has been through anything like this before. We are all making it up as we go along. The next year or so is going to be made up of tentative steps and lots of waiting and seeing. And that’s as it should be.

Stay healthy, everyone.

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