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OPINION | Classrooms, controversy and COVID: How can government safely reopen schools?

As much as Alberta Premier Jason Kenney might wish it, we are nowhere near a “return to our regular everyday lives.”

'It seems to be a gamble that provincial governments across the country are taking'

With 750,000 students headed back to classrooms this fall, the big question on many minds is how can the province safely reopen schools. (Halfpoint/Shutterstock)

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The good news: Alberta schools will resume in-class learning in September.

The bad news: Alberta schools will resume in-class learning in September.

For Alberta parents of school age children, this fall will be an emotional tug-of-war between relief at getting the kids back in school and anxiety about their safety.

Not helping matters are the conflicting messages from politicians.

For Premier Jason Kenney, this is about getting the province back to post-pandemic normalcy.

"The return of more than 750,000 students to near-normal learning in the new school year is indicative of Alberta's continued recovery as we work to relaunch our economy and return to our regular everyday lives," Kenney said on Tuesday.

However, as much as Kenney might wish it, we are nowhere near a "return to our regular everyday lives."

COVID-19 is still very much a threat. And in Alberta that threat seems to be growing. For a two-week period this month Alberta recorded the most new cases per capita of any province in Canada. Our rising hospitalization rate is second only to Quebec.

"We should all be very concerned about the recent rise in active COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in Alberta," Kenney said as he simultaneously announced the return-to-school plan. "It looks like some folks are no longer observing the public health guidelines."

From mixed to ironic

Well, yes, I suppose that's what happens when you have a premier breezily talking about us returning to our "regular lives." There is a mixed message here.

Kenney's message went from mixed to ironic when he offered this bit of advice: "If you think you can socialize with large groups of people in close quarters, knock it off. If you're young and healthy, remember you could still carry and transmit the virus that ends up killing someone who is old or vulnerable."

Kenney was aiming his ire at people who ignore public health guidelines but "large groups of people in close quarters" who are "young and healthy" and "could still carry and transmit the virus" that kills "someone who is old or vulnerable" sound ominously like school kids.

There will be 750,000 of them in close quarters this fall.

The government's plan includes frequent cleaning of surfaces, hand-sanitizer stations, and potentially staggering start times for classes and lunches to help with physical distancing. But mask use will not be mandatory.

And there will be no cap on class sizes. That means some classes will continue to have 30 or more students.

Both the NDP opposition and the Alberta Teachers' Association have seized on the issue of overcrowded classrooms, saying this is crucial to the safety of students and teachers.

The NDP wants the government to spend $1 billion to cap class sizes at 15 students, hire more teachers and cleaning staff, and provide money for schools to buy personal protective equipment.

"Ultimately, Jason Kenney's approach is to cross your fingers, close your eyes and hope that kids don't get that sick, and hope that kids don't transfer it to others," said NDP Leader Rachel Notley in a comment guaranteed to increase the anxiety of parents. "That is not a plan; it is a gamble. He is rolling the dice with the health and safety of Alberta children."

Is the province gambling?

If it is a gamble, it seems to be a gamble that provincial governments across the country are taking.

Nova Scotia, for example, doesn't have a cap on class sizes. It is making mask use mandatory in school buses, hallways and common areas, but not in classrooms.

The Ontario government wants to get classes back to as near-normal as possible but is facing pushback from some school boards that want a 15-student limit in classes.

The Yukon plans to reopen classes as normal in mid-August but says if the risk of COVID-19 rises, classes might be limited to 50 per cent or less.

When British Columbia opened classes briefly in June, schools limited the size of classes in kindergarten to Grade 5 by allowing only half of students in on alternating days. It's not clear what B.C. will do in the fall.

Provinces are cobbling together plans on the fly as the number of COVID-19 cases rise and fall and rise again. 

What can we learn from other countries that have reopened schools or never closed them?

The answer isn't clear.

"Outbreaks in schools are inevitable," said Otto Helve, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare, who spoke to the American Association for the Advancement of Science. "But there is good news."

The good news is the benefits of attending schools seem to outweigh the risks — as long as the infection rates in the school's community are low, and health officials deal with outbreaks quickly.

In Canada, governments are assuring parents their children will be safe while teachers and opposition politicians are urging governments to do more, spend more, and plan more to ensure that safety.

Of course, the best laid plans of governments could yet go astray.

It all depends on COVID-19.

"We are all tired of COVID but this virus doesn't care," Alberta's chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, said on Thursday, as she delivered a diplomatic lecture to Albertans who are ignoring public health guidelines and driving up the number of cases and hospitalizations.

"This needs to be a wake-up call," said Hinshaw. "I am very concerned by these numbers."

If the numbers continue to rise dramatically enough, Alberta will not only have to rethink its plans to reopen schools but also its plans to reopen the economy.

Returning to "our regular everyday lives" is easier said than done.

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story said Saskatchewan would not cap class sizes and that it was making mask use mandatory in school buses, hallways and common areas, but not in classrooms. The province undertaking those measures is Nova Scotia.
    Jul 28, 2020 5:18 PM MT

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