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What will Canadian schools look like after COVID-19? Here’s what could change

COVID-19: Canadian kids forced to learn from home
WATCH: Canadian kids forced to learn from home

With the new coronavirus still wreaking havoc in Canada, there’s no clear answer on when students will return to classrooms — but questions surround how they might reopen once the call is made.

Lessons about “what to do and what not to do” could be taken from places like Denmark, according to Charles Pascal, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

How schools in Denmark will look now

Denmark relaxed some of its strict coronavirus lockdown measures this week, allowing preschool to fifth-grade students to return to classes. The remaining grades are expected to return by April 20.

The students are not returning to the status quo. In order to comply with national sanitary guidelines, classrooms have been reorganized and redesigned. Desks have been placed two metres apart, and recesses are staggered for small groups at a time.

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READ MORE: Are school closures effective in stopping COVID-19? Researchers aren’t sure

While gatherings of 10 or more people are still banned across the country, teachers are expected to ensure students are never in groups of more than two either inside or outside.

One school has chosen to divide classes into groups to limit the total number of students in one classroom to 12, Danish paper The Local reported.

In Taiwan, school was never out amid the pandemic. Heightened measures like temperature checks at points of entry and plastic dividers between desks keep students separated and in check.

Closures at the present time in Canada are the right move, Pascal said, but he emphasized that there is room to plan ahead.

“Right now, teachers, students and their parents need to settle in with remote learning the very best they can while others plan ahead for how schools might open next fall,” he said. “But we shouldn’t underestimate what will be required for a post-COVID-19 world in our classrooms.”

But many of those questions remain unanswered in Canada.

Coronavirus outbreak: Horgan says preliminary talks underway to discuss reopening of schools
Coronavirus outbreak: Horgan says preliminary talks underway to discuss reopening of schools

Provinces still unclear on how, when

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Schools across Canada gradually began shutting their doors in mid-March. Ontario and Quebec expect them to remain closed until well into May. In British Columbia and Alberta, schools have been closed until further notice. New Brunswick has entirely cancelled the remainder of the school year.

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Students, teachers and parents have kept studies going from a distance with e-learning, but it’s been no easy task.

Eventually, schools will have to be open — but how?

Without no further directives from public health and provincial education ministries other than to remain closed, school boards have their hands tied.

A spokesperson for the Toronto District School Board said it’s too soon to speculate what it would look like or if it would even come into play during the remainder of the 2019-20 school year.

If reshuffled classrooms were part of the plan, school capacities could get in the way, according to the Peel District School Board in Ontario.

“This would be a challenge in many Peel schools,” said Carla Pereira, a spokesperson for the PDSB, which serves approximately 154,000 kindergarten to Grade 12 students in the municipalities of Caledon, Brampton and Mississauga.

“We’re setting at or near capacity,” she continued, “so there wouldn’t be open classrooms to move students into.”

READ MORE: How many Canadians have the new coronavirus? Total number of confirmed cases by region

Premier Doug Ford touched on the topic Thursday, calling any possible protocols for reopened schools “premature.”

Both Ford and Education Minister Stephen Lecce pointed to those decisions being dependent on the advice of Ontario’s chief medical officer.

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“[We] are committed to communicating a plan that prioritizes the safety of students and the continuity of learning,” Lecce said in a statement to Global News.

B.C.’s Ministry of Education also said it will follow the guidance of health officials on when and how to open schools.

In an email statement to Global News, the provincial ministry said its planning will be guided by four principles: health and safety of students, families and employees; providing services to support essential workers; having adequate support for students who need special assistance; and providing continuity of educational opportunities for students.

In Alberta, where schools have been closed until further notice, the province’s chief medical officer of health, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, said the decision to reopen them will be made in conjunction with other lifted restrictions.

None of that will be feasible until data reflects an improvement, she said.

“Returning to school will be a very big decision,” Hinshaw told reporters.

“Schools are not unique. We will be considering reopening schools along with all other segments of the economy, and the timing of that and the planning of that will be an integrated part of that relaunch strategy.”

Alberta students, parents adjust to class work being done online due to COVID-19
Alberta students, parents adjust to class work being done online due to COVID-19

When Alberta does get to that point, Hinshaw suggested public health could consider mask-wearing in schools.

“We would absolutely be continuing to emphasize regular handwashing and keeping anyone who’s ill home,” she said. “We’ve been talking about increased use of mask-wearing when people aren’t able to be further apart than two metres of each other, so that would be something we’d need to talk through with respect to schools.”

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Discussions will be had over the coming weeks, she said, to ensure “clear direction to schools,” but Alberta is “not at that point yet.”

“They’re just considerations,” she said.

Unions say staffing, funding key

But these protocols need to be top of mind sooner than later, said Laura Walton, president of CUPE’s Ontario School Board Council of Unions.

“We get that we’re in the heat of it right now, but you do have to have a plan to get out of it,” she told Global News.

READ MORE: Coronavirus — Ontario parents, teachers say transition to e-learning will be a learning process

Walton said there were a number of “inadequacies” at schools in Ontario prior to the pandemic that won’t be resolved by “getting back to normal.”

“Normal is not where we want to go back to. We have to have a better normal,” she said. “That means putting adequate staffing and resources in place so, for example, our custodial and maintenance team can provide safe and clean schools. That wasn’t even happening prior to the pandemic.”

Funding to maintain staffing to meet new protocols will be key, she said. CUPE is working with the ministry on “supported COVID-19 response” to issues like custodial services, learning resources and instructional support.

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“We look to the ministry for provincial guidelines on how each school board will be able to pull out of this,” she said.

“Because we will pull out of this pandemic. So what are we ready to put forward to ensure we’re in a better place.”

— With files from the Canadian Press