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Posts Tagged ‘School Reopening Plans’

Something is stirring among parents in the wake of the three-month-long experience housebound supervising their children’s schooling during a global pandemic. With reopening plans still up in the air and September mere weeks away, a dramatic shift is taking place as COVID-19 distance education impact assessments surface and more and more parents find their public voices. 

After a five-hour-long July 9-10 meeting, the harried and pressured Ottawa-Carleton District School Board voted for all students to return to K-12 schools full-time in September 2020. Ottawa’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Vera Etches supported full-time resumption and elected trustees were deluged with parent concerns about the possible adverse impact of extending distance learning or hybrid part-time scheduling into the Fall Term.

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The Ottawa popular media featured the voices of aroused local parents, including working mothers, desperate for a break from home-supervised schooling.  In defending the decision, Board Chair Lynn Scott claimed that the alternative — a hybrid model combining part-time school and remote learning was “never what anybody wanted.”  The coterminous Ottawa Catholic Separate School Board, reading the same signals, followed suit. 

Listening to the vocal Ottawa parents demanding a return to full-time school was reminiscent of the public outcry sparked by news anchor Howard Beale in that memorable scene from the classic 1975 feature film, Network, “I’m as mad as hell, and not going to take it anymore.”

Such parental concerns and frustrations, mostly expressed in more modest and composed forms, are popping-up from province-to-province across Canada. Alberta parent activist and family physician Dr. Nhung Tran-Davies described remote learning supervised by parents as “a failure of pandemic proportions” and urged school districts to restore in-person teaching for the children’s sake.

A parent uprising moved the needle in Nova Scotia. Halifax School Advisory Council Chair Claire Bilek spoke for many on July 9, 2020  when she called upon the Nova Scotia Education Minister and his Department to come up with some plan, or any plan, for the resumption of regular schooling in a matter of weeks.  A newly-formed parent group including Halifax child psychologist Erica Baker issued an open letter posing questions that required immediate answers and Nova Scotia Education Minister Zach Churchill was compelled to announce that the province was committed to achieving “100 % capacity” by September 2020.     

Advocates for a safe and responsible approach to reopening schools can look to British Columbia for some home-grown lessons.  Reopening school on June 1, albeit on a voluntary basis, brought some 200,000 students safely back to the classroom, with the blessing of Dr. Bonnie Henry, Chief Medical Officer of Health, and Teri Mooring, President of the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation. That “trial run” was executed with relatively few adverse health experiences and produced important information and feedback to aid in preparation for the 2020-21 school year. The goal is to have even more students in class in September utilizing a five-stage approach, allowing schools to respond quickly in the event of a second wave. All five stages are supported by strict health and safety guidelines from the provincial health officer, the BC Centre for Disease Control and WorkSafeBC.

Ontario’s initial plans to open schools in September were announced June 19 and were prepared after consulting with health experts, including those at Toronto’s Sick Kids Hospital. The three proposed scenarios were: a full reopening of schools with enhanced health protection measures; a full schedule of distance learning classes; or a hybrid plan, where students would attend in-person school part-time, possibly two days a week, and receive online instruction for the balance of the time. A Sick Kids report, released June 17, provided the rationale, making the case that reopening was essential to relieve the mental health strains and could be accomplished without unduly risking the physical health of children.  The Toronto pediatric experts recommended rigorous hand hygiene and regular screening, but not strict physical distancing or the wearing of masks.  

Suspending school for three months as a lead in to the summer is having harmful effects on the coronavirus generation. We are beginning to take stock of the full impact in terms of student learning loss. Students surveyed June 1-8 by the Upper Canada District School Board in Brockville, Ontario, confirmed that a majority of high schoolers struggled with at home learning and were clearly shortchanged in their education. As most provinces struggle to make a decision on a definitive back-to-school plan, health experts are coming forward to support the Sick Kids report warning about the mental health risks of keeping kids out of the classroom.

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Without the routine and social connection that school brings, many kids and teens have reported feeling sad, stressed and anxious since the end of in-person classes in mid-March.  Dr. Kiran Pure, a clinical psychologist in Dartmouth, N.S., reports that, even after restrictions have relaxed, her small team of psychologists is still working “basically non-stop and it’s been a lot of mental health support.” She’s been struck by the intensity of the mental health challenges some kids are experiencing, especially those with existing conditions. Her recommendation: Getting students at risk back to school in September is becoming an urgent necessity. 

Bringing students back in September is a hot button issue for educators and, especially so for classroom teachers on the front lines. Drawing comparisons between teachers and other “essential workers” labouring outside their homes throughout the pandemic rankles teachers. Today’s teachers pride themselves on being professionals more like doctors or dentists than essential workers in the child care, food services, delivery, and restaurant fields, many of whom are already back at work. Many educators, speaking freely on social media, are fearful and angry, especially when politicians advocate bringing back schools to help kick-start the stalled economy. 

Medical science will not likely provide a risk-free option, especially now that we have received conflicting advice from respected pediatricians and epidemiologists. Some well-intentioned health professional prescriptions, such as that of Amy Greer, Nisha Thampi and Ashleigh Tuite, apply sound clinical lessons, but may set benchmarks rendering the September resumption of school next-to-impossible. 

Fears and anxieties still run high because the COVID-19 pandemic is horrible and health protection is everyone’s priority.  Finding the right balance and developing a safe and broadly acceptable school resumption plan is fraught with challenges and potential complications. With the curve flattened and infection rates minimal, it is time to get students back to in-person schooling, particularly K-8 students who require daily adult supervision.

Why are increasing numbers of parents calling for the return of full-time, in-person schooling? Who should be making the call on the resumption of school in September 2020?  Where do education ministers and policy advisors turn when public health officials and medical researchers are not fully aligned?  How important is the resumption of school to the full restoration of essential services and a productive economy?  Most importantly, do students, parents and taxpayers have a right to expect a much more effective model of educational delivery in the upcoming 2020-21 school year?  

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Staggered school start times, medical checkpoints, classes split in half, desks spaced two metres apart, social distancing in hallways, eating lunch in classrooms, and washing hands every two hours. These are just some of the changes being implemented in the highly contested first phase of the reopening of Quebec schools after the COVID-19 pandemic.

With the premiers and public health officers actively planning for opening up again, senior school superintendents are hunkered down and now beginning to map out a plan for post-COVID-19 schools in the era of physical distancing. Seeing images of Danish ‘social distancing’ elementary schools with classrooms full of students spurred some initial detailed resumption planning. It still shocked many parents and educators to see students re-entering schools on May 11 all over Quebec outside of Montreal.

Ensuring the safety and health of students and staff will be the highest priority, of course, in determining when schools can safely re-open. Looking for guideposts, school planners have looked to educational systems like Denmark, as well as New Zealand and California, all ahead of the curve in planning for the transition to regular classes. Facing pushback from anxious parents and teachers, many provinces will be drawn to a go-slow “rota approach” like Australia and Scotland, adopting a one-day-a-week or alternating days schedule.

Schools resumed for pre-school to Grade 5 students in Denmark on April 15, as the first phase in that nation’s relaxation of strict coronavirus lockdown measures. It’s fairly makeshift because, as Danish head teacher Tanja Linnet conceded, “we need to make plans for terrorist attack here—but not this kind of attack.”

Under new Danish school regulations complying with public health sanitary guidelines, start times are staggered, students are seated two metres apart, schoolyards are divided into play zones, and entrance/exit routes diagrammed on school maps. Students wash their hands upon arrival, and then every two hours, and all contact surfaces, including door handles, are disinfected twice per school day.

New Zealand Education Minister Chris Hipkins began to  tackle the huge logistical challenges as he prepared to meet his target re-opening date of April 29.  That meant moving from Level 4 (shutdown) to Level 3 (partial opening) of schools and early childhood centres. Schools are reopening in “waves.” Teachers were allowed back first to plan for the continuation of online learning and the resumption of in-class teaching. Distance learning continues to be delivered from schools, especially in communities where broadband connections are better and teachers have ready access to more resources.

Children of essential workers were identified in New Zealand as a priority in returning to school, making it easier for their parents to do their jobs. Starting with the integration of children of parents critical to the workforce sparked vocal criticism from principals who claimed it sent out the signal that schools are little more than “baby-sitting services.”  Senior high school students, they claimed, were in greater need of teacher-guided instruction to mitigate the impact of closure on “learning loss” and preparedness for their next stage.

Getting younger kids back to school emerged as a priority for California Governor Gavin Newsom in a state where 6.1 million students from K to 12 were enrolled in “distance learning” for weeks on end. Addressing educational inequities was California’s biggest concern, especially in poor and marginalized Los Angeles region communities where students lack computers, adequate broadband, and suitable home study conditions.

Schools in Canada’s provincial K-12 systems will likely look significantly different when they reopen elsewhere either in June or September of 2020. Among the operational changes you can expect are: staggered school schedules to create smaller grade-level cohorts; regular medical check-ins with temperature monitoring; deep cleaning and stricter sanitization measures; social distance classrooms and movement routines: blended (combined seat-based and online) learning; classroom take-out lunch services: expanded school-based supply teacher pools;  limited athletics and arts cocurricular programs; small, congregated Special Needs/ ELL classes; and academic ‘catch-up’ programs to mitigate significant ‘learning loss’. among certain cohorts of students.

Announcing the resumption of school will spark renewed fears of a flare-up of COVID-19 spread by ‘vectors’ in the communal school environment. School re-openings announced by, or in conjunction with public health authorities, may help to allay such student and parent concerns. We are already seeing a parent backlash comparable to the “My kid is not going to be a Guinea Pig” Facebook protest which garnered more than 40,000 supporters in Denmark.

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Seasoned public health observers, spurred on by National Globe and Mail Health Reporter Andre Picard, claim that it is pre-mature in May 2020 for Quebec students to be heading back to school.  Principals and teachers need to be brought on-side to ensure that school re-opening is ultimately a success. Properly equipping teachers with protective masks and access to PPE, personal protective equipment, may be necessary until the immediate threat of a second wave has passed. Reducing class size groupings and expanding the school-level pool of substitute teachers should help to allay teacher concerns.

Whether the radical COVID-19 shift to e-learning will actually stick is more difficult to assess. Thrust unprepared into the emergency use of e-learning technology may sour teachers on adopting ed tech and activate their social justice impulses, focusing on the digital divide in terms of access.  Parents and families struggling to cope with the fears, anxieties, and stress of a pandemic are not at their best. When the crisis is finally over, this totally unplanned “experiment” with e-learning may well send everyone in K-12 education back into their comfort zones.

*An earlier and abridged version of this commentary appeared in The Globe and Mail, April 28, 2020.

What will post-COVID-19 Canadian schools look like? What is the tipping point when it is safe to reopen schools without significant health risks?  Is the early reopening in Quebec an aberration, or a predictor of what is to come? Why is it so much easier to authorize a full-system shutdown than it is to stage a resumption of school following a pandemic? 

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