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Unanswered questions burden Ontario back-to-school plan | Rachel Goldenberg

Thursday, August 06, 2020 @ 10:44 AM | By Rachel Goldenberg

Rachel Goldenberg %>
Rachel Goldenberg
There's nothing like the start of school: the bright new backpack, the smell of new textbooks and the feel of … face masks?

This September marks the return of school. While many parents rejoice at the thought of their children getting back into the routine of socialization and education, many fears and concerns arise with the return of school in the context of COVID-19.

Last week Ontario announced its plan to reopen schools, which is summarized succinctly in the province's website, Guide to reopening Ontario's schools. Here are the highlights:

  • Elementary schools are going back five days a week, six hours a day. Students will be placed in a single cohort, in the same size classes as previously. Students in grades four and up are required to wear a mask all day.

  • Secondary students will alternate attending school on different days. Students will be placed in cohorts of 15, having lessons, lunch and recess together. Students are required to wear a mask all day.

I am thrilled at the thought of my children getting back into school. As I had mentioned in a previous article, I am not the best homeschooler and I am excited for my children to learn from our amazing educators.

However, I am very concerned about the province's plan and feel that it was not properly analyzed or thought out. It seems that it is destined to fail and we will end up back home in isolation (and homeschool hell) the instant flu season hits in the fall.

It is as if school is continuing "business as usual" for children in kindergarten to grade three. But things are anything but! There are anywhere from 20 to 30 kids in each classroom, and many classroom sizes are quite small. I can guarantee you that these children are not physically or socially distancing from each other. The recommended "bubble" we have created for our family will be expanded exponentially. And what about the children who have siblings in other classes? Many families are going from a bubble of 10 to a bubble of 100 in one day.

Children in grades four and up are required to wear a mask all day. That is six hours in a mask. I, as an adult, could not do that. While I have heard about the studies proving the efficacy of mask wearing in children, I am convinced that children will touch their faces MORE with a mask on than they would without one.

I also worry about the interference of masks in children's learning. It is difficult to properly articulate and enunciate with a mask on — words are often muffled. Children who are learning to read will not be able to watch educators' faces and see how their mouths move as they pronounce words.

The back to school plan also contemplates having only one or two educators per cohort. What about children who require special assistance or a shadow for one-on-one attention? How will those children's needs be met?

How will the bathrooms and public spaces be properly cleaned and sanitized on a regular basis? Will students be expected to structure and stagger their bathroom usage? And will the younger students be required to put on a mask to go to the bathroom? Will they remember?

The government's plan says it will encourage proper hand hygiene. I don't know about you, but my children consider hand washing to be a form of cruel and unusual punishment. I am constantly reminding them to wash their hands with soap. How can the teachers, who are busy enough handling a full classroom, with masks on, while trying to maintain physical distancing, be able to monitor the children's hygiene?

Will every cold be treated like COVID-19? Once fall hits and cold and flu season starts, there is rarely a day that my children do NOT have a stuffy nose. At the first sign of a sniffle, will we be rushing to get tested for the virus? Or will we be in self-isolation for 14 days to be safe? Do colds and flus even exist anymore, or is everything COVID-19?

One of the biggest concerns and sources of pushback from educators and parents alike are the class sizes. Elementary class sizes should not be staying the same. They were too large to begin with.

Recent guidelines from SickKids made it clear that smaller class sizes must be a priority for the safe return of children to school. However, the Ontario government appears to have ignored this advice and has maintained large class sizes.

Many concerned parents (including myself) have been spreading a petition, Ontario Demands Better: Reduce Class Sizes to Keep Schools and Communities Safe. I encourage any of you reading this who share my concerns to read and consider signing this petition as well.

It is not just the children I am concerned about. I am concerned for the teachers, who are being forced to open up their own bubble and expose themselves to many new children and families. I am worried about their ability to wear a mask all day. I am worried about their anxiety and mental health. I am worried about their family members, some of whom may be vulnerable or immunocompromised.

Teachers can refuse to come to work, like all other employees, but many teachers do not want to refuse to return, given that they need the money they earn from working.

In so many scenarios, it feels like we are being forced to choose: the teachers must choose between their safety and their livelihood. The students must choose between their safety and their education. The parents of students have to balance all of these things and keep their fingers crossed that they do not have to go back to homeschooling their children.

The most poorly designed part of this plan, in my opinion, is that bars and restaurants are being opened around the same time as the return of school. Why? Why could we not have gotten our students back into school before we start indoor dining. We have seen in other parts of the world what happens when the world reopens and bars and restaurants open indoors. A second wave hits, sometimes even worse than the first. It is summer — let's keep people on patios and get our children back to school!

The more I read about the back to school plan, the more I am disappointed in Premier Doug Ford and Minister of Education Stephen Lecce. They need to get back to the drawing board and come up with a better plan to get our children back to school safely.

Rachel Goldenberg is a content lawyer at LexisNexis Canada.

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