Ottawa

Make safe return to school a priority, expert urges province

There's plenty of uncertainty about what the return to classes will look like in the fall, and that's leaving many parents — especial women — in the lurch, according to Lauren Dobson-Hughes, a gender equality and health consultant in Ottawa.

Women, disadvantaged families hardest-hit by current uncertainty, says Lauren Dobson-Hughes

The Ontario government is providing some guidance, but is largely leaving it up to individual boards to decide whether students return to school, continue learning online, or see some combination of the two when classes resume in September. (Oksana Kuzmina/stock.adobe.com)

School may be out for the summer, but for many parents, September is already looming on the horizon. 

There's plenty of uncertainty about what the return to classes will look like in the fall, and that's leaving many parents — especial women — in the lurch, according to Lauren Dobson-Hughes, a gender equality and health consultant in Ottawa.

"If we don't get this right and we don't bring kids back to the fullest extent possible, the impact on women particularly will be terrible," Dobson-Hughes told Ottawa Morning on Monday. 

That impact could include women dropping out of the workforce because they've been forced to choose between their children and their careers, she said.

No 'one-size-fits-all' solution

The province has asked school boards to create three different plans: one for a full return to the classroom; one for continued online learning; and one that would combine online and classroom learning, with no more than 15 students together at any one time.

"We don't want a one-size-fits-all," Education Minister Stephen Lecce said when he announced the government's back-to-school strategy last month. 

That means how or where your child goes back to school will depend on where you live, and what your school board decides to do in September.

In boards and regions where the COVID-19 curve has been flattened, the province's plan would permit a more conventional learning model, to "allow kids to be kids," Lecce said — "to study together, to play together." 

Students practise physical distancing in a Vancouver classroom. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Disadvantaged families hit hardest 

Dobson-Hughes, who's also a parent, agrees that a blanket solution isn't the answer. But she also pointed out that the communities currently in the midst of outbreaks tend to be in areas where many families are already disadvantaged, and are therefore most in need of education and child care. 

"They are most likely to be in precarious work, they're most likely to have lack of access to child care," she said. "They can't afford it." 

Dobson-Hughes is no fan of the hybrid model, where children are in school for part of the week and learning online the rest, because it threatens the stability upon which some children rely. 

"For some kids, this experience has been profoundly frightening," she said. "Not only are they going to have to catch kids up on months of missed education, they're also going to be dealing with behavioural mental health adjustment issues."

The Ontario government said it will provide guidance to school boards, based on public health advice, in the weeks before the fall session begins.  

Dobson-Hughes acknowledged there are risks, and said those should be part of the discussion. But she urged the province to commit to getting kids back to school sooner rather than later.

"For those who are disadvantaged and marginalized, bringing back schools is the best solution," she said.

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