Kathleen Wynne’s op-ed in the Toronto Star

  • Community Update

Sun., May 10, 2020

We need a back-to-school plan

It would be a beautiful thing to behold — millions of kids eager to get back to school — if it were not such a fraught and risky prospect. COVID-19 has changed so much about our lives and schools are no exception.

If anyone doubted before all of this that school was at the heart of our communities, that doubt has been washed away in all that hand scrubbing. Yes, technology has allowed for some pale facsimile of a classroom. Students who live in structured, ordered homes have been able to continue some of their assignments. But in many more households, parents and children have abandoned much of the online offering because without the personal interactions of a real classroom, it is just too hard to maintain focus.

That is not to say there is no learning going on. Baking projects, nature hikes, journaling and reading, garden projects, and gaming competitions, are busting out all over.

But anxious kids miss their friends and teachers and parents worry about how their children are going to reintegrate into school life.

The discussion right now in Ontario about opening the economy has, understandably, centred on how stores, businesses can open safely. We need the same scrutiny on how we reopen schools safely for students and staff.

We have the advantage here in Ontario of being able to look to other jurisdictions for guidance on how to or how not to proceed but even examples like Denmark or now Quebec will not have conclusive results before we have to make decisions.

Let’s agree on some principles for getting kids back to school whenever that may happen: safety of the adults and the students has to be the first priority. Learning for all students must be supported — that means there will be a need for lots of review, remedial and mental health support. Schools will need to provide clear and consistent communication with families. Finally, there must eventually be a plan for a full-day program for students in both elementary and secondary schools.

The conditions for safe schools will only be resolved if decision-makers all come together — teachers and support staff, principals, parents, politicians and health officials all need to have a voice in developing a plan. We especially need to hear from teachers and support staff about what will work.

Here’s my two cents on how we could tackle some of these challenges:

  • Increase cleaning regimes in schools. This will require increased custodial staff and may require training on deep cleaning techniques.
  • Physical distancing means more space per person. Do we start having kids come back for half days? A nightmare for families trying to get back to work but could be a transition. Right now Quebec’s plan for reopening elementary schools seems to count on lots of people not sending their kids to school. That’s reasonable but untenable in the long run. One obvious strategy is to use unused rooms in schools to split classes and spread kids out but that only works in schools that are not full. Maybe classes could be spread across more than one building. And maybe in communities where there is no extra school space, other public spaces could be used as classrooms.
  • Reconfigure playgrounds. I don’t mean huge building projects — Denmark has delineated safe play distances on their playgrounds and Quebec is staggering recesses to reduce the number of children outside at one time. Kids are resilient but will need help learning the new rules and patterns of play.
  • Mandate staggered arrival and departure times to avoid the crush of small people at both ends of the day.