Yeah, I know, another Covid-related post. I promise next week’s will be about writing. But the things I’m writing about here *do* affect my ability to write, considering I’m the one in charge of distance learning with the kids in our house, and I can’t write when I’m helping with schoolwork.
(Also, the whole being terrified of getting sick and dying-thing really interferes with my ability to concentrate.)
There are no good answers when it comes to school this year.
We’re still waiting on our school board to come out with its official plan, but we’ve been warned we’ll have about a week after they announce it to decide whether our kids will be attending or staying home for distance learning.
Personally, I’m leaning hard toward keeping them home, since we have high-risk family members and the privilege to do so (I’m a stay-at-home parent, who writes when I can, and my three kids have each other to socialize with.)
But even then, it’s a hard call. My kids could do with hanging out with kids they’re not related to (if we keep them home we’re going to have to arrange regular social distanced playdates, something we’ve been lax on), and distance learning last year did not exactly go smoothly.
Plus there’s the added factors that my two of my kids were waiting on assessments for specialized learning plans, *and* the fact that this would be my daughter’s last year at this school (which she’s attended since pre-K), and if she doesn’t go back, she may never see some of those kids in person again, as kids go off to different middle schools.
But I just can’t see how in-school classes can be safe.
There’s enough evidence about Covid-19 ‘s ability to spread indoors that our city has instituted a mandatory mask policy for all indoor spaces. However, that policy specifically excludes schools and day cares, and most of the boards in our province that have presented their plans so far, have said masks will not be mandatory inside classrooms (you know, that spot where kids will sit around breathing the same air all day).
Even if masks are made mandatory, it’s doubtful everyone will wear them properly (considering the number of adults I see with their noses hanging out) and the kids will still need to remove them to eat.
Masks or no masks, the next step is keeping kids separate. Our classes have shared tables instead of individual desks, which makes distancing near impossible, even if they reduce the numbers to 15/room as is being suggested.
As an alternative, some boards are suggesting splitting the kids into cohorts – groups of kids they’re allowed to get within 6 feet of…which doesn’t sound great to me? Aside from the logistical nightmare of supervising and maintaining those cohorts, if they split into groups of 5, that makes the up-close exposure for my family 7 kids minimum (assuming they group my twin boys together), and that’s not counting the fact that some kids have siblings who will be in close contact with another 4 kids, etc.
One of the reasons for cohorting (besides having to do it because of lack of space) is for social/emotional reasons, so the kids can be close to their friends. And with younger kids, I suppose it might work (assuming you could keep them to only that group – which is a whole other matter). But for middle school aged kids? What happens if your entire friend group, except you, is cohorted together? Or if you’re put with your bully? What if you’re put with your friends and then you have a fight? What if you’re put with the kid who’s been writing you love poems for the past two years and won’t take no for an answer?
And, worst of all, what happens to those social circles when one kid develops symptoms?
Next is the hallway traffic, which can be helped by taking each class through the halls separately, but still need to account for the coathooks/boot benches (which currently require the entire class to stand shoulder-to-shoulder while changing out of and into outdoor gear).
Then there’s recess.
Kids need to run around. But if classes have separate recesses, supervision will be an issue (since teachers need breaks too). And supervision will be imperative – since Covid-19 makes bullying so much easier (who needs to punch someone when you can just threaten to cough on them?) Schools are going to need strong policies that are backed up with disciplinary action.
And while many people advocating for in-person school are citing a study that said kids are low-risk for death, complications, and spread, new evidence is coming to light to the contrary. Israel’s second wave is being blamed on school openings, children have been developing serious conditions post-Covid (and that’s just the one we know about – some viruses like Chicken Pox and Herpes stay dormant for years, popping up decades later to produce secondary infections. We have no idea what the long-term effects of Covid-19 are going to be), and a new study shows that children over 10 are just as likely to spread the virus as adults.
But even if that first study had been correct, it ignores all the adults in school system: teachers, custodians, office staff, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, etc.
Even if those adults can keep physically distanced from each other (no eating in the staff room or quiet discussions with other staff) and the kids (no applying bandaids, comforting sad or sick children, or just teaching up close and personal), they’re also still breathing the same air (in notoriously badly ventilated buildings) – not to mention using the same restroom facilities.
Which brings us to cleaning.
Our school board has announced funding for 16 extra custodians. For the whole school board. Our classrooms don’t have hot water, and last year were seldom supplied with soap or paper towels (but that’s okay, because the kids weren’t allowed to wash up after recess/before eating anyway).
So, if hygiene, sanitation, and ventilation are a bit sketchy, then the next best plan is to keep the virus out of the schools, right?
Well, it’s not that easy.
According to our province, parents are responsible for keeping sick kids home. But if you’ve ever been inside a school, you know how well that works. First off, you can’t always tell what symptoms are the result of a bad night’s sleep or allergies, and what’s something more serious. I’ve certainly sent groggy kids to school, only to get a call an hour or two later telling me they’ve spiked a fever or thrown up.
Plus, Covid-19 symptoms are pretty broad. Are parents expected to (or going to) keep their children home every time one has a scratchy throat or sniffly nose? What about their siblings? Can one child go to school if their sibling is potentially showing symptoms?
And that doesn’t even cover the parents who will send sick kids intentionally, because they *need* to go to work. (My city’s daily case count has doubled since last week, and almost half the cases are being blamed on adults working while sick. If people will go to work sick, they’ll definitely send sick kids to school.)
And even if we managed to keep anyone with any kind of symptom home, there’s still the little matter of pre- and asymptomatic transmission.
Which brings us to the question: what happens when (not if) somebody at a school tests positive for Covid-19?
I would assume the whole class gets sent home for 14 days, along with any bus mates, teachers, bus drivers, etc that came in contact with the infected person (according to Toronto Public Health, anyone exposed is to self-isolate themselves for 14 days, by staying in their house and away from other household members – including the recommendation to use a separate bathroom – which will be really easy to do with elementary-aged children, I’m sure.)
But does that extend to siblings? If my daughter’s class was exposed, I’d likely keep my sons home too, knowing how quickly germs spread in our house, but will everyone? What about the adults? Should parents of an exposed child continue to go out to work and grocery shop as normal? Or are they also under a 14 day lockdown?
What about the teachers who’ve covered more than one class (and despite the province’s assurances that teacher interactions will be limited, someone is going to need to cover prep-time and lunch breaks)? If a teacher who covered three classes was exposed in one of those classes, do all three classes isolate? Or only if that teacher tests positive/shows symptoms?
What are the rules for secondary exposure? If someone in my sons’ class isn’t yet sick, but was exposed (say, at day care) does the whole class stay home? Or do they wait and see if the student from class develops symptoms, and only stay home then? What if someone in a student’s household tests positive (or even is waiting on test results)? Are they allowed to continue attending school and potentially infect the whole class?
I just don’t see how schools won’t lead to more outbreaks. With our numbers in Ontario (and Ottawa) back on the rise, in-person school feels risky.
On the other hand, keeping everyone home (especially without paid leave) isn’t a great option, either. Parents need to work. Child abuse is going unnoticed. Kids’ mental health is suffering. And children who rely on breakfast programs are going hungry.
But I can’t help but believe if everyone who *can* keep their kids home chose to do distance learning this year, maybe we’d be able to lighten the load for those who need to attend. If distance learning could reduce the student body by even thirty percent, it’d shrink the need for more teachers and classrooms, and still allow space for physical distancing.
That requires a good distance learning, program, though.
No one was ready to switch to emergency distance learning last year, and it showed. But this year, we know distance learning will be needed, so planning should start now.
Boards should establish board-wide programs to be run by teachers too high-risk to be inside classrooms. Those courses could function both for those students who elect to do distance learning full time, and those who need coverage during a 14-day isolation period, when kids are sent home. This would also cover the eventuality of a teacher becoming ill – because there’s no way someone fighting Covid-19 will be able to run distance learning for their class.
Whatever our school boards announce, and whether our family personally chooses distance learning or in-person classes, one thing is for certain: school this year will be anything but “normal.”