Ontario back-to-school plan worries some immunocompromised parents

Parents with compromised immune systems in Ottawa are worried about the province's plan to return elementary students to school full time.

Parents, experts say plan should have reduced class sizes to allow for physical distancing

Eric Wilson with his wife Koren, daughter Brooklyn, son Adam and son Nolan. Wilson says his children will be learning remotely from home in September to help keep him safe. (Supplied)

Parents with compromised immune systems in Ottawa are worried about the province's plan to return elementary students to school full time.

The premier announced Thursday that students in kindergarten through Grade 8 would be going back to school in September, five days a week, with class sizes remaining at regular, pre-pandemic levels.

However, students will stay within a single cohort — including during recess and lunch.

"It's sort of like playing Russian roulette," said Eric Wilson who has three children aged six, eight and 11.

Wilson, 45, has Crohn's disease, a painful inflammatory bowel condition that puts him at a greater risk of developing severe complications from COVID-19.

He said in order to protect his health he's decided to keep his children at home when school starts. Parents have the option of remote learning, delivered by school boards.

Eric Wilson says his underlying health puts him at a greater risk of developing severe complications from COVID-19. (Supplied)
"We had already pretty much decided that we were not going to send them back [and] that we would go with the online learning option," he said.

Wilson said he was disappointed the province didn't provide more information on how online learning will work for children in his family's situation.

"I would have liked to see more details on ... what would happen with parents like us that are immunocompromised," he said. 

Wilson said he hopes remote learning doesn't morph into homeschooling because it would be unworkable for his family.

"I'm fortunate that I'm able to work from home and my wife is able to stay home and take care of the kids, but there's still three kids and two of us," he added. "It's very difficult."

'Panic mode'

Lindsey Evans, 34, has bronchiectasis, a chronic lung disease that she said on a normal day puts her at risk for pneumonia.

She's written to Premier Doug Ford, Education Minister Stephen Lecce, her children's principal and her school board to voice her concerns about a return to full class sizes.

"I kind of went into panic mode and spiraled very quickly," she said. "I don't know how we go from literally not exposing our household to anybody, to being in a class size of 30-plus children."

Lindsey Evans (right) with her husband Marc and sons Felix, 4, and Morris, 1. Evans says smaller class sizes will better protect children and immunocompromised parents. (Supplied)
Evans, a nurse with two boys aged four and one, had anticipated sending her oldest son back to school this coming fall.

"Knowing that it's going to be full class sizes with no social distancing in that age group ... just seems quite ludicrous to me," she said.

Evans said the plan falls short of SickKids proposed guidelines for reopening schools, which was released on Wednesday ahead of the province's announcement. It included recommendations for reduced class sizes, staggered lunchtimes and regular cleaning schedules.

She said she appreciates the learn from home option, but it doesn't address the socialization needs of younger children.

"It's a bit of a cop-out in my opinion of the government not being prepared to spend the time and resources and effort into coming up with a solution ... that enables families of all sorts of backgrounds to allow their children to safely attend school," she added.

'It's better to have them in one place'

Epidemiologist Raywat Deonandan said reopening elementary schools is the right move because young children need more development time and social contact.

Attending school all day will also reduce children's chances of contracting COVID-19 at daycare centres and other child-care facilities, according to the associate professor at the University of Ottawa.

"It's better to have them in one place, in one cohort."

Deonandan said a smaller class size is critical to preventing the spread of COVID-19 because it allows for better physical distancing in the classroom.

"I understand that's a resource limitation but we are spending $300 million dollars here. Surely a chunk of that money could be spent on lowering the student-to-teacher ratio," he said.

"The biggest bang for the buck is in physical distancing and physical distancing can be best achieved from small class sizes."