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Canadian Schools Reopening Despite COVID-19 Concerns

The Big Picture: Elementary and secondary school students from coast to coast are slated to return to classrooms this fall, months after COVID-19 led to nationwide lockdowns. Many Canadians are concerned that the risk of transmission is still too high, leading to a push towards alternative learning.

Though school closures back in March were intended to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, the health and wellbeing of many Canadian children has been significantly affected as a result. 

  • Several public health organisations including the WHO have raised concerns over lockdown measures exacerbating family violence and mental health concerns.
  • In Ontario, 1 in 3 parents have reported a deterioration in their child’s mental health since being home from school.

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New regulations have been released by governments to keep students safe: While parameters for reopening vary by jurisdiction, most students can expect to be back in class following Labour Day. The federal government has also released guidelines for reopening schools.

  • Currently Ontario is the only province to offer parents the opportunity to opt-out of attending in person.
  • Across jurisdictions, mask requirements concern instances where students may be interacting with their peers outside of the classroom such as in common areas and hallways.
  • Efforts to limit contact between students include staggering class times and incorporating remote learning. Governments are also developing contingency plans for possible closures due to future outbreaks.

Parents have been vocal about their anxieties about back to school: In Ontario, a recent poll found that nearly four in ten parents were uncomfortable with sending their children back to school in the fall, while 74% had lost faith in the education minister to provide safe conditions for a return.

  • Many parents that are able to afford private education have decided to keep their kids home, opting to form learning pods – a group of families hiring a teacher to privately educate their children.
  • Petitions over too-large class sizes and cohorts have garnered support in provinces such as Ontario and British Columbia.
  • In Quebec, a group of parents have engaged a constitutional lawyer to push for online school. As of now, parents in the province uncomfortable with their children returning back to school will have to remove their children from school and pursue home schooling.

Concerns over schools opening up too soon may be warranted. When schools in Israel opened without class size restrictions in May, the country had 10 reported cases. By June, 22,000 students and staff were quarantined and 2,000 cases had been confirmed.

  • Even with plans for mandating masks and physical distancing, a lack of enforcement and overconfidence may leave Canadian schools vulnerable similar to their Israeli peers.

Back to school season is exposing inequalities: Private education and online learning is not an option for parents who do not have the resources to cover the additional costs. For essential workers and parents with more than one child that cannot afford childcare, classroom learning may be their only choice.

  • The pandemic has disproportionately affected single mothers, who are relying on schools reopening so that they can resume full-time work.

The Bottom Line: Parents across the country are stuck between a rock and a hard place; staying home from school is harming their children’s wellbeing but sending them back may be putting their health at risk. 

As a growing number of Canadians believe that measures being implemented to keep their kids safe do not go far enough, they are taking matters into their own hands by pushing for better efforts from their governments and pursuing alternative education. This leaves students forced to return to school disadvantaged and at a higher risk of contracting and transmitting the virus.