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Schools reopening amid COVID-19 create questions of equity and access | Marvin Zuker

Thursday, August 13, 2020 @ 3:44 PM | By Marvin Zuker

Marvin Zuker %>
Marvin Zuker
On July 31, the Ontario Ministry of Education announced that it would allow parents to choose between sending their children to school in the fall or taking part in school board-provided remote learning.

“As we have always said, we’ll continue to respect the choice and authority of parents ... .” Authority of parents, of course, has been the mantra of this Ministry, particularly in the context of private and independent schools. The liberty rights of parents are not unconstrained freedom. Children are active rights holders, not passive recipients of adult actions.

COVID-19 has clearly exposed a great deal of inequity in our education system. Research shows that school closures have widened achievement gaps. Private schools are not regulated. They have flexibility, money and means — and maybe an epidemiologist on staff, if not thermal scanners in the halls.

Forget racial and class inequality. How many Ontarians will now decide to set up their own learning pods where groups of maybe up to 10 children meet every day and learn in a shared space? Hire a private teacher and away you go.

This is not the time for us to retreat into the comfort of our own advantages. What is going to happen to our desire to create a diverse learning environment (I hope) where the academic and social needs of all children are met? It will be extremely interesting to determine how many parents withdraw their children in favour of a pod school or home instruction.

They could just set up their own private school. Relatively cheap, elementary age children, no inspection needed. No Ontario Student Record needed. Maybe just a few batteries.

When we think of children in low-income households we cannot think of digital equity. What are we doing, and what have we done, to make sure that all children are connected with free high-speed Internet providers? Many parents may not even have a phone, or speak English or have a credit rating, which may be required. Whether Internet service is a commodity or a utility, it is a necessity.

Also in the context of low-income or no-income families, what our Ministry of Education may not have addressed are those families that cannot pay their rent. How can our schools support distance learning at home, for example, for children who are homeless? Do we simply forget them? Housing, child welfare and our school boards must work together to help these families.

Our schools are much more than day-care providers. They provide an education. But, as I have suggested, they also provide a social setting, health services and very often meals. Child care means that every child must have a safe place to go so that hopefully their parents can work, they can learn and teachers can teach.

There are so many ways to mitigate against the concerns of many parents, whether we are speaking of enforcing physical distancing rules, wearing masks or simply strict hygiene. Taking more precautions may mean taking in fewer students in each building.

According to published reports, the Ontario Ministry of Education will make masks mandatory for students in grade four and up, based, it appears, on a report issued by the Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids) on July 29, which concluded in part that young children are at a reduced risk of contracting COVID-19.

A study published the next day, July 30, in JAMA Pediatrics came to a different conclusion. The JAMA study concluded that just because children are not getting sick, or very sick, does not mean they don’t have the virus. According to The New York Times, Taylor Heald-Sargent, who led the study, said that “... kids do have levels of virus similar to and maybe higher than adults. It wouldn’t be surprising if they were able to shed” the virus and spread it to others.

Where are the protocols, the plans in place in the event a child or anyone in a school tests positive? On July 30, the New York City Department of Education (DOE) released new protocols for its schools. If one or more students from the same class tests positive their classrooms will close and anyone who has had close contact with those students should self-quarantine for 14 days.

If two or more children in the same school test positive for the virus but do not share a classroom, the entire building will close for two weeks. If at least two cases are found in the same building but the infections occurred outside of school, the DOE will also shutter the whole building to investigate the source of the exposures.

Children who are compelled to leave classrooms will transition to remote learning.

Finally, and briefly referenced by the Ontario Ministry, are the “high needs” children with disabilities. I don’t know what that means or is supposed to mean. Is the government thinking outside the box or thinking of visible disabilities? There are more invisible disabilities than there are visible disabilities. The Center for Disability Rights (CDR) lists them all. Invisible disabilities have the advantage and disadvantage of secrecy. We have a shared responsibility to consider others, regardless of whether they reveal their disability.

Students with disabilities are entitled, where appropriate, to an Indentification, Placement and Review Committee (which identifies exceptional students) assessment that may be embodied in a student’s individualized education program (IEP).

We must not forget, and must address our obligations to accommodate, those students who may chose not to attend schools. Home-bound instruction must not take away these children’s rights not to be deprived of all special education and related services.

Marvin Zuker was a judge of the Ontario Court of Justice, where he presided over the small claims, family and criminal courts from 1978 until his retirement in 2016. He is associate professor at Ontario Institute for Studies in Education/University of Toronto, where he teaches education law. Zuker is the author and co-author of many books and publications, including The Law is Not for Women and The Law is (Not) for Kids.

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