Cross Country Checkup

Why some parents and experts say keeping schools closed hurts children

Some provinces have pushed back the return of in-person classes in a bid to slow the spread of COVID-19, but some parents and experts worry that closing classrooms could have significant long-term effects on children.

Virtual classes 'a gong show' for younger students, says one Ontario parent

Some provinces chose to delay returning students to in-person classes following the winter holiday break in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. (BlurryMe/Shutterstock)

Bronwen Alsop wants to see elementary students in Ontario given the option of returning to classrooms immediately.

The early childhood educator in Toronto says that for many students — including her two children, 3 and 5, who have special needs — virtual education has wreaked havoc on their mental health.

"This is very scary for all different ages what's happening right now," said Alsop whose children are taking pre-school and senior kindergarten classes virtually. "They don't really understand what's happening, why they have to sit still for six hours and they're staring at a screen suddenly."

Last summer, Alsop founded Opening Schools & Daycares Full Time Safely In Ontario, a group of approximately 700 parents across the province, which advocates for schools in Ontario to reopen.

Several provinces, including Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba and Alberta, pushed back the return to in-person teaching following the winter holiday break — with classrooms going virtual — in an effort to slow the rise of COVID-19 cases.

While some students in those provinces will return to the classroom on Monday, the Ontario government announced Thursday that elementary students in the southern part of the province will continue virtual learning until Jan. 25. 

"I'm disgusted that we are actually choosing this route again, claiming that it is the safest route," said Alsop, adding that she believes the delayed return has encouraged some families to break COVID-19 guidelines and gather with people outside their household.

Bronwen Alsop, top left, is an early childhood educator and the founder of parent's group Opening Schools & Daycares Full Time Safely In Ontario. (Submitted by Bronwen Alsop)

In a statement, the Ontario Ministry of Health told Cross Country Checkup that based on "targeted" testing completed in schools last December, transmission in classrooms is low. 

However, "with students having been at home for several weeks and with reports of concerning behaviour over the holidays, the positivity rate among school-aged children has increased sharply," the statement read. Ontario reported 3,443 new COVID-19 cases on Saturday.

Lacking data

While transmission in classrooms is possible, there is little evidence to suggest that schools are hotbeds of COVID-19 spread based on currently available data, according to Dr. Jeffrey Pernica.

"Children are human. They can get COVID, they can transmit COVID. There's no reason that transmission cannot happen," said Pernica, head of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Disease at McMaster Children's hospital.

"The important question is, does having schools open amplify COVID transmission in the community?"

COVID-19: Why are kids staying home longer if schools aren’t high-risk settings?

2 years ago
Duration 7:02
Two infectious disease physicians answer viewer questions about the COVID-19 pandemic including why many children are being kept at home if schools aren’t considered high-risk settings and why teachers haven’t been prioritized for vaccines.

The answer to that question, Pernica says, is unclear — and he worries that closing schools could have longer-term consequences on children's health.

"If you had to choose between all the MRIs in Canada and a robust school system, I think it's a no brainer. Educating our children is critical for their individual long-term health and for our health as a society," he said, pointing to increased rates of mental health issues.

"Children are paying for the lack of preparation and the lack of investment into dealing with COVID."

Balance needed

Dr. Jesse Papenburg, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at the Montreal Children's Hospital, says that there is modelling that suggests closing schools could have a positive impact on curbing COVID-19 spread, but adds that it should be balanced with the benefits of keeping schools open.

Schools in Quebec were closed in mid-December, with the return to in-person classes pushed forward one week. Elementary students in Quebec will return to classrooms on Jan. 11, while high school students will return on Jan. 18.

Though schools have been closed in that province for three weeks, Papenburg says it has done little to change the case count.

"If anything, [they] increased slightly since the school closure," he said. Quebec reported 3,127 new cases on Saturday — nearly double the number of cases in mid-December.

Pernica, who supports the closure of schools facing outbreaks or in a region with an "explosion" of cases, believes that often the decision to close schools is made too quickly — and without addressing other concerns.

"We want to seem like we're doing the safe thing, so we'll close schools because that doesn't demand an investment or rethink the way that we are dealing with this pandemic."

When it comes to education, Papenburg believes that schools should be the last to close and the first to reopen. Still, he says he would have liked to see the Quebec government extend the closure by another week.

"It's not in a vacuum, and I think that we have to make choices as a society, and we're making choices with the information that we have at hand and trying to really do what's best for all," he said.

Alberta and Ontario differ on schools despite similar COVID-19 numbers

2 years ago
Duration 2:01
Two provinces with similar COVID-19 infection numbers have made opposite decisions on school going forward. Alberta is sending kids back to the classroom next week, while Ontario is keeping most students at home.

'It's a gong show'

As cases skyrocket in Ontario, Alsop, who works in a daycare, has doubts that the school closures will lessen the number of cases in the province. Instead, she wants to see the government consider other options.

"Why are we looking at this now in January when they have not done anything between September to January to do investigation and pilot projects to see where those high risk areas are, to see what is happening there?" she said.

Alsop says that though her family will push through the next few weeks of online classes, the first week back to virtual school has already been tough on her five-year-old daughter.

"I wanted to get my daughter used to this set up as soon as we could to try and get her adjusted, but she's already regressing. It's not been a very good week at all for her," she said.

"So I don't know how it's going to be. It's a gong show."

Written by Jason Vermes with files from Steve Howard and Kirthana Sasitharan.

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