a child is having her temperature checked before being admitted inside a school


I’m a Canadian Parent With a Plan To Make School a Bit Safer in September

Aug 27, 2020

I think it's safe to say that in the age of COVID, most of us feel safer outside right now. And for good reason.

Despite many major Canadian cities opening up stores, restaurants, bars, park amenities and more, our increased use of outdoor spaces has kept transmission rates relatively low in our cities. 

And as schools prepare to reopen in just a few weeks, what that means is this: thousands of education workers and many more students will be walking into buildings and spending the day there.

Not every parent can keep their kids at home — do you have pandemic privilege? Read about that here.

In those buildings, physical distancing will be difficult, and ventilation is often subpar. To me, it's scary, and I don't think it has to be this way.

Right now in Toronto, groups of parents — like myself — and teachers are imagining taking schools outside — a campaign that the team I’m involved with is calling #SaferOutsideTO. At first blush, it might sound like an impossible feat, but it’s not. In fact, more than a hundred years ago, Toronto and cities across the United States created open-air schools in order to contain the spread of tuberculosis.

Granted, it has never been done on the scale that is being called for, but I think the need has never been as great as it is now.

"To me, it's scary, and I don't think it has to be this way."

In its guidance for reopening schools, The Hospital for Sick Children paved the way for open-air classrooms by recommending that Canadian cities explore “non-traditional spaces” and to “incorporate outdoor learning opportunities as weather permits.”

Following that, in its announcement last week, the government of Ontario encouraged boards to use reserve funding to support learning in “non-school” community spaces. The logistics involved in creating city-wide open-air schools in any city or town would not be simple, but for a population that’s motivated to control the spread of a deadly virus, and keep as much open for as long as possible, obstacles can be easily overcome.

Many parents are feeling confused or anxious. Here's a story from an Ontario mother who is feeling uneasy about back-to-school time

Earlier this summer, Toronto and other cities have been able to rapidly mobilize to permit and build outdoor patios on sidewalks and streets so that restaurants could once again serve their patrons.

Some outdoor classrooms can be built on schoolyards, but that won’t be enough space. For the #SaferOutsideTO campaign, relevant authorities are being called upon to quickly allow for free access to local parks, permission for short walking excursions to those places, access to clean bathroom facilities, possible traffic closures on busy roads where classes will be held, structures to protect kids and teachers from the weather and support for cold-weather clothing drives for kids without the proper attire.

Not every class, and not every school day, will be able to occur outside — but I believe we should aim for it to happen as much as possible.

If this pandemic has shown me anything, it’s that a health crisis can deepen social and economic inequities. And so this possibility of open-air learning isn’t something that should be limited to the individual groups of parents and teachers that have the time and resources to organize it — I believe it should be a city-wide policy for all schools, directed from the top.

Otherwise, there is the risk that the wealthiest among us will be able to create safer learning spaces for their children, and those with less money will be forced to accept less safety.

"If this pandemic has shown me anything, it’s that a health crisis can deepen social and economic inequities."

Also, I recognize that a move to take schools outside is only one piece of the puzzle — the urgent need for more funding for schools to safely operate under COVID-19 conditions remains. At the same time, as American schools open and then swiftly close because of rampant outbreaks, I feel as though the Canadian government at all levels must take heed of the challenges they have failed to meet and make better choices.

Schools are crucial but they are not immune, literally or figuratively, to any of the issues that are keeping many other businesses closed, and for good reasons

Outdoor schools — and the relative safety they provide — make a lot of sense.

Education workers, parents and students might seem like the obvious people who will benefit from outdoor classrooms, but I think every single person living in Canada could benefit from this move.

If you have some old T-shirts, find out how you can turn them into no-sew masks for your kids here.

There are plenty of Canadians who believe that cramming hundreds of thousands of adults and children into aging buildings day after day will mean a surge of cases in a short time.

But by taking schools outside, I do believe that we can reduce the spread, and thus extend the opening of our city’s stores, bars and restaurants. These efforts would allow us to keep our jobs and our incomes. And continue to enjoy the ability to bubble with our families.

I strongly believe we’ll save lives.

Outside, learning in the fresh air, the children of Canada will stay safer, and we’ll all breathe easier for it.

Are you a parent who thinks differently about school starting in September? We'd love to hear from you.

Article Author S. Bear Bergman
S. Bear Bergman

S. Bear Bergman is an author, advice columnist, children’s publisher, and father of three. Photo © Zöe Gemelli

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