Some readers of this blog, knowing I was a Director of Education in two Ontario school districts prior to retirement, have asked if I would offer an opinion on whether schools should be locked down during this Covid pandemic, or opened up. Is the mental health of children being jeopardized by their continued absence from school? Or is that danger outweighed by the chance they will contract a Covid variant and spread it to others in their families and neighbourhoods?
They ask what I would do if I were still Director of Education.
It’s complicated, I tell them. On the one hand, there is no doubt that the benefits of in-person learning far outweigh those of online instruction carried out remotely, although online learning does have a place. And that speaks to opening up schools.
But the risks inherent in bringing children into congregant settings that number more than the limits imposed by the government for other venues—for example, a maximum of five or ten for indoor gatherings—are serious enough to give us pause.
As the once-upon-a-time CEO of those two school districts (unnamed here because I no longer speak for them), reporting to an elected board of Trustees, my overarching duty was to ensure the health and welfare of all students, staff, and members of the public who entered our buildings. There were countless other responsibilities, of course, prescribed by the Education Act and its concomitant Regulations, and by those local school boards, but none so important as the safety of children.
So what would I do if I were still Director? I would advocate strongly for the opening of schools and the return of children to in-person learning, but only—and this is the key point—when those schools are safe for their return.
What would make them safe? To answer that, I would rely upon the advice and recommendations of experts in the field of epidemiology, virology, child psychology, and public health. But because such people are not always in perfect agreement, I would have to exercise my own professional judgment to synthesize their thoughts and formulate a course of action.
Here’s what I know—or at least what I would rely upon. In order to be safe for learning, I would ensure classrooms had adequate ventilation, perhaps HEPA filters in each one if necessary. Alas, most of the schools in the two districts where I worked did not measure up, so that would present a major problem right away.
I would insist that anyone present in our buildings be fully vaccinated, in accordance with the guidelines respecting age and intervals between doses. No vax, no entry (subject to bona fide medical exemption). And everyone would wear an approved mask, and keep a recommended distance from each other—made possible by a restructuring of the physical classroom spaces. Learning cohorts would be half the number they are now.
Testing and screening at prescribed intervals would be required, along with contact-tracing whenever someone came down with Covid. Exclusion from school would be mandatory for anyone who became ill, subject to the public health guidelines around isolation and quarantine. That is no different than procedures in place presently for children who come down with mumps or measles, for example—diseases whose frequency is greatly reduced now, of course, by mandatory vaccinations. In fact, any child who has not received the vaccinations required by provincial law is already excluded from attending school. My plan would add the Covid vaccination to that list.
Naturally, there would be costs associated with implementing these measures, both societal and financial. How would local boards enforce such attendance restrictions against people who defy them, who declare (perhaps with some justification) that, as taxpayers, they have the right to have their children in school regardless of vaccination status? How would those boards pay for the structural improvements needed in classrooms and schools? How would they pay for the increased number of teachers and education workers required?
During the early years of my employ as Director, local school boards had taxing authority. Each year, the property tax bills issued to ratepayers by local municipalities included an education component, through which boards could supplement the grant money they received from the provincial Ministry of Education in order to look after local initiatives. So ideally, my plan would be financed by a local levy aimed at bringing about the necessary improvements to ensure the welfare of all who enter our buildings.
For better or worse, twenty-five years ago, the Harris Conservative government took away that taxing authority, leaving local boards reliant on annual per-pupil grants from the Ministry, the amounts of which were (and are) largely determined by formulas and algorithms overseen by Ministry staff in Toronto. The education priorities and needs that had heretofore been determined by the residents of local communities across the province were thus greatly diminished, not in importance, but in realization.
Because they no longer pay the piper, as it were, local boards can no longer call the tune.
My plan to open schools up, therefore, would be severely constricted today by a lack of money to bring about the required improvements in safety necessary for a secure return to school. Nevertheless, it is what I would be advocating to any who would listen. The billions of dollars being allocated to the building of a new 400-series highway (which, I assume, is based on somebody’s economic advice) would surely go some distance to making our schools safe for the return of students if re-allocated for that purpose.
So I ask myself, what is the priority? More highways or safe schools? To a school district Director, the answer is evident.
As you might expect, the authority of a Director of Education is limited—both back when I occupied the position and certainly now—so if I were still on the job, I would be constrained from implementing my plan despite its common-sense foundation, prevented from pushing ahead on my own, even with the blessing of the local board employing me.
Nevertheless, this is what I would do if so empowered—not what I could do under present conditions.
Of course there are many negative implications for children, parents, employers, and the broader community to keeping schools closed—interrupted learning, social isolation, gaps in child-care, diminished cadre of workers, need for and costs of paid sick-leave, unintended strains on the public health system—which many of us are aware of. And that’s why the whole question is complicated.
But I also know this. It is impossible to alleviate the mental health problems of children and adults if they have died. And it’s going to prove immensely stressful and costly to deal with the effects of long-Covid, the extent of which is only just beginning to be understood—fatigue, shortness of breath, brain fog, chronic sleep disorders, fevers, anxiety and depression, earlier-onset dementia, to name some. We need to err on the side of caution with respect to the health of our populace.
When faced with difficult decisions as Director of Education (such as whether or not to permanently close a school, or to dismiss an unsatisfactory employee), I always tried to err, where possible, on the side of the children in our care. What was the solution that would have the optimal impact on their long-term welfare?
And that’s how I would decide the schools issue now, insofar as I would have the authority to do so. Would I lock ‘em up, or open ‘em up?
I strongly advocate for the opening of schools and the return of children to in-person learning, but only—and this is the key point—when those schools are safe for their return.