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What if a student gets COVID? Ontario's back-to-school plan 'isn't clear,' experts say

Parents across Ontario have worried how safe their kids might be when September comes and school doors reopen. The CBC spoke with three experts in education to answer some of the many questions people have asked since the Ontario government revealed its back-to-school plan.

'I don't know that people can be sure this is a safe way to go'

People across the province continue to worry about exactly how safe students, teachers and other school staff will be when September comes and school doors open again. CBC's Conrad Collaco spoke with three experts in education to answer some of the many questions people have asked since the Ontario government revealed its back-to-school plan last week.

Hamilton high school teacher Joe Cappadocia, Hamilton-Wentworth Elementary Teachers president Jeff Sorensen and Annie Kidder, executive director of People for Education, talked about the government's plan, what needs to be fixed, advice for parents and more.

Watch the full interview by clicking the play button above. However, audio problems will make some of the conversation difficult to listen to. You can read an edited and abridged version below.

A lot of parents and students worry about returning to school in September. How successful do you think the province's plan will be? 
Hamilton-Wentworth Elementary Teachers' Local president Jeff Sorensen (left), Annie Kidder, Executive Director of People for Education (centre), and Hamilton high school teacher Joe Cappadocia (right), raised several concerns about Ontario's plan to re-open schools. (CBC)

Annie Kidder: When we look at it, we can see that despite the advice from Sick Kids and from the medical experts, there are things missing. There is no funding to keep class sizes small, which was definitely one of the recommendations. And there's hardly any additional funding for more teachers, more guidance counsellors, more support staff, educational assistants, school psychologists — all of the people that we would need to make that school's safer, for one thing, but also to make sure that kids are getting all of the education that they need when they return to school.

Joe Cappadocia: It leaves more questions than answers at this point. When I talk to teachers, we don't know what we're doing yet. We don't know what courses we're teaching. We don't know exactly how the cohort is going to work. You don't know what happens when somebody tests positive in our class, or in our school in one of our other cohorts. There are just so many unanswered questions, so much confusion, so much anxiety, that it really is difficult to see how this will play out. And I have to agree with Annie. The funding just doesn't seem to be there to put all of the supports in place to make this a successful start.

Jeff Sorensen: I'm hopeful. It sounds like the ministry is hopeful. But unfortunately, hope is not enough. There is a desire to go back to school. My members, our teachers, we'd be happy to go back to school. We'd like to go back … We hear the same thing all the time from our board. Go slow. We've had very little time to get this into gear. There are a lot of questions about how things are going to happen. There aren't a lot of answers. I wish we could reassure parents. I wish we could reassure our members because besides students, schools are populated by teachers and EA's and ECE's and they're all entitled to be healthy too.

Why the rush?

AK: People say 'the clock's ticking.' But what clock? Why is it ticking? So, I think that the other thing that we're suggesting now is why can't there be a kind of gentle return to school and a phased-in approach so teachers and all the staff inside school have a chance to figure out what they're going to do when kids are slowly coming in — a kind of staggered re-entry — so, as Jeff said, we're not necessarily going to open schools only to close them a couple weeks later.

JS: I think parents deserve to feel that when they send their children to school for five or six hours a day that they're going to be as safe, if not safer than if those same children who went to a restaurant or went to a mall. We're not talking casually walking past somebody else in a hallway. We're talking six hours in a room with 31 bodies not wearing masks in poorly ventilated, un-air conditioned rooms. Hopefully no one gets sick. I've heard the medical advice that perhaps young students don't transmit as easily. But that's intense contact — six hours a day, every day for 30 kids in a fairly small space. I don't know that people can be sure this is a safe way to go.

What if a student gets sick? Does the whole class have to isolate? Do the siblings of the students in that class have to isolate? Do the teachers they've come into contact with have to isolate? Can an illness to one student shut down an entire school?

AK: Well, right now in the government plan, that's not clear. It talks a lot about the screening and testing and they are funding 500 additional public health nurses to work out of public health units and support schools… It's really not clear. There is nothing specifically named about what happens then. One wonders the same thing about a teacher. If I was a high school teacher and I interact with up to a hundred people, which is what the limit is from the government plan, and I test positive for COVID, does that mean the hundred people I've been in contact with — students, support staff, other teachers — all have to go into isolation and what about all of the other people they're in contact with? I think that is a pretty obvious question right now… It's pretty surprising that at the beginning of August we don't have an answer to that yet.

JS: We've been told that if anybody is symptomatic they will be immediately isolated. The problem with that is our schools don't always have spaces where students can be separated and at that point the plan seems to fall down. What then? What happens if a parent can't come to school to pick up their child? What if that child has siblings in that school or another school? You know, at that point the explosion has already happened. 

AK: I think that it is possible, and we have seen it in other countries, for kids and staff to go back to school safely. I've looked at the plans all across the country and to be totally blunt what's missing here is money. In order to do it safely you have to be willing to fund lots more teachers, lots more support staff and actually find other spaces for schools to happen because the distancing has to be in place. And I think that provincial governments and territorial governments across the country have been loath to raise the alarm and it's billions of dollars in order to do that. But yesterday the U.N. talked about a generational catastrophe and that's true in Canada too... Kids should be in school. I think there's no question about that. And that's what's going to make it equitable and fair. But we're going to have to spend money.

What advice do you have for parents?

JC: They need to make sure that they take this time to regroup and re-energize so that we can get things going into September really well. As well, I think they need to be making their voices heard to their MPs and ministers and school boards, putting the pressure on everybody who can make those differences. Your teachers are in the same boat as your kids. We're going to be in the same building. We'll be in classes with them. We're going to look out for them. We're going to look out for ourselves and for our families. We will do the best we can. But you really need to get the message out and to rejuvenate ourselves.

AK: I think it's important for all of us, everybody working in education, and for parents, especially, to really pay attention to their kids' mental health right now. Being healthy mentally is like being healthy physically. For kids who've been living through the pandemic there's a lot of stress, anxiety, worry. I think we'd really have to recognize that and give kids space to talk about how they're feeling and not try to dismiss their fears. I have a grown up child who says she feels we're in a state of cosmic anxiety. You know, I think that's not entirely wrong. So, I think that it's very important that kids do feel ok and that they try and understand as much as they can what's going on and feel like the grown ups are backing them and I think that's the most important thing parents can do.

JS: I would just like to add I think parents need to advocate for their children. I think they need to voice their concerns with the individuals who have the ability to make decisions and that's right from the Premier's office right down to the principal's office. In your school ask 'what are the parameters? What are the protocols? What happens if my child is exposed to this? What are the recess plans? What are the entry plans? How is the bathroom going to be cleaned?' All those everyday questions that everybody wants answers to, the ones that we're chasing as teachers. If parents would advocate for their children, advocate for their neighbourhood schools and ask the principals, superintendents, the directors — 'what exactly are the steps you're taking to keep my child safe until they come home at the end of the day?'

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