As a former educator, I am frequently asked my opinion on the great send-the-children-back-to-school-in-the-fall debate. Will it be safe? Is it wise? And the inevitable question: What would you do if they were your kids?
My short answer? It’s complicated!
I lived the first twenty-two years of my life preparing, as it happened, for a career in education, and I’ve spent the most recent twenty-two years in happy retirement. The intervening thirty-two years had me working as a teacher, vice-principal, principal, HR superintendent, and finally school district superintendent (director of education) in two jurisdictions. Those jobs were sometimes more challenging than I might have wished, often more difficult than I could have imagined, yet, thankfully, always rewarding.
During my working years, the security and health of everyone I was responsible for—pupils, teachers, and business operations staff—were of paramount concern to me. Everyone was entitled to a safe learning environment: one free of harassment in whatever guise; one free of assault or intimidation in any form; one clean and in good repair; one equipped with up-to-date learning materials and curricula; an environment welcoming and open to all.
I don’t say those objectives were always fully met, but any shortcomings were never due to lack of effort and good intent.
Today’s students and education workers learn and teach in an environment similar in many ways to that which I inhabited, the many advances in technology notwithstanding. But there is one major difference they face just now, a threat the likes of which we have never encountered before to this degree. The COVID-19 virus is a stealthy, merciless, oft-fatal disease that stalks us all, old or young, especially if we congregate in significant numbers in indoor spaces.
A prime example of such spaces: schools!
And so, the great question: Should we be sending kids back to school this fall? And I do have a longer answer.
During the final years of my career, the provincial government removed from locally-elected school trustees the power to levy taxes for educational purposes. This left school districts totally reliant on government grants to pay for the costs associated with the provision of an education appropriate to their local communities—communities often poorly understood by the government decision-makers. As a result, those grants frequently proved insufficient to the needs, and continue to be inadequate to this day.
Whether the school district was located in a large urban environment, or in a remote, northern rural area, the special needs associated with their discrete makeup were only partially accommodated when funds were allocated. In the years since I left the profession, although the actual dollar amount of those grants has increased, it has not matched the concomitant cost-of-living growth.
Hence, I believe it is not safe to send kids back to school this fall—nor all those who will accompany them back—without a significant expenditure of money to ensure their health and safety. And it is the government’s responsibility to do this.
Many school districts across the province already have a staggering backlog of capital repairs that are needed to aging buildings, undertakings they cannot afford with current funding. Believe it or not, there are still schools burdened with asbestos and lead plumbing, not because people don’t understand the need to replace them, but because they haven’t the funds. There are schools with leaking roofs, aging wiring, saggy floors, inadequate heating and cooling, and windows that won’t open.
Absent COVID-19, everyone would have been going back into those buildings this fall to cope as best they could with such conditions. It’s inconceivable to me that they would be allowed back without massive measures to safeguard them against the relentless virus preying on the land.
Scientists and medical professionals know better than I how money might best be spent. Here is a partial list only, gleaned from my reading of many of their posts—
- developing ongoing channels of communication with provincial and local health departments to stay updated on COVID-19 transmission and response, including contact tracing in the event of a positive case,
- making decisions that take into account the level of local community transmission,
- deep-cleaning and disinfecting school buildings daily, especially water and sanitation facilities,
- increasing airflow and ventilation in schools,
- promoting best hand-washing and hygiene practices for everyone, and providing hygiene supplies,
- providing children with information about how to protect themselves, in ways that are developmentally appropriate,
- implementing multiple SARS-CoV-2 mitigation strategies, such as social distancing, cloth face-coverings, and hand hygiene,
- holding school in shifts to ensure smaller class sizes,
- staggering mealtimes and breaks at school,
- re-purposing unused or underutilized school (or community) spaces for classroom use,
- moving classes to temporary spaces or outdoors,
- integrating SARS-CoV-2 mitigation strategies into co-curricular and extra-curricular activities,
- limiting or cancelling participation in activities where social distancing is not feasible,
- developing a proactive plan for when a student or staff member tests positive for COVID-19,
- supporting the mental health of students and staff, and combating any stigma against people who have been sick, and
- educating parents and caregivers on the importance of monitoring for and responding to the symptoms of COVID-19 at home.
Most important of all, perhaps, is the need to engage and encourage everyone in the school and community to practice preventive behaviours. That is the most crucial action to support schools’ safe reopening, and to help them stay open. Until transmission rates in local communities are reduced to an acceptable level, it will be unsafe to send anyone back.
Most of the experts I’ve read believe children should be going back to school, not just for the sake of our economy, but for their own emotional welfare. But only if it is safe for them to do so.
So, how much will all these measures cost? I confess I have no idea; I am too long departed from the scene. I have read different estimates from government sources, unions, teacher associations, and parent advocacy groups. Perhaps a consensus is possible.
But whatever the amount, it is not too much if it ensures the safety and well-being of all who head back to school in September, because there is one thing that has not changed since I last was there—the education of our children is not an expense; it is an investment in the future of our country.
And that fact is not complicated at all!