Coronavirus: Is it safe for Ontario students to go back to school?

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WATCH: Ontario Premier Doug Ford said on Wednesday that his government is hiring 500 new public health nurses for schools, and laid out other investments made to ensure a safe back-to-school plan – Aug 26, 2020

With school just around the corner, many Ontario parents and teachers are still wondering whether it’s safe for children and teens to return to school amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Most schools in Ontario will open for students on Sept. 8, while some school boards have delayed and staggered their start dates.

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On Wednesday, the Ontario government released guidelines for addressing positive COVID-19 cases or outbreaks that might occur at schools in the province.

The same day, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the federal government will give $2 billion more to provinces and territories so that students can go back to school safely in the fall, with an initial $381-million installment given to Ontario.

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But even with governments’ and school boards’ recent announcements and funding commitments, many parents and teachers are still concerned about what lies ahead.

Are schools prepared?

Dr. Anna Banerji, a pediatric infectious disease specialist and pediatrics professor at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, said schools are becoming more prepared than they were previously.

Some school boards, she noted, are mandating masks for students, beginning in kindergarten or Grade 1. The province, on the other hand, is requiring masks for kids in grades 4 to 12.

“We are seeing people do things a little bit more creatively, and boards and regions are making more decisions to try and protect the students,” Banerji said. “I think it should be mandatory for anyone that can to wear a mask.”

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Easy ways to make sure your child keeps their mask on

While some school boards have taken further action, some people are still nervous about whether students will be able to physically distance in the classroom.

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Earlier this week, the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario’s CEO said she wrote a letter to the province’s top health official, asking that elementary classes be capped at 15 students, unless large spaces can accommodate physical distancing.

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Ontario’s four teachers’ unions also wrote a letter to their members, saying they’ve asked the Ministry of Labour to issue a number of workplace orders in schools to protect students and staff from COVID-19. The unions said it should be mandated for there to be 15 to 20 students per class, with cohorting to a maximum of 50 students.

“Right now, I don’t think [schools] will be able to adhere to the guidelines put out by SickKids and the other public health units in Ontario,” Aparna Mishra Tarc, an education professor and York University’s graduate education program director, said.

“Class sizes are critical to being able to follow some of the guidelines…I don’t think it’s safe.”

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For the 2020-2021 school year, the Ontario government released a guide so that schools and boards can reopen safely amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. It states all elementary schools in Ontario will reopen for in-person teaching five days a week, while high schools in school boards designated by the province will open on an “adapted model,” with class cohorts of about 15 students on alternating schedules, with at least 50 per cent of in-class teaching days.

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Ontario’s back-to-school guide also says the government is investing in masks and PPE, additional teaching positions and custodial staff, as well as public health nurses who will help schools and boards, among other things.

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What if there’s a COVID-19 outbreak?

While Banerji hopes physical distancing and masks will prevent a lot of COVID-19 outbreaks at schools, she said it’s probable that there will be some outbreaks of the virus.

“If the kids understand this — they understand what’s going on, they understand the need for physical distancing and they comply — then I think we’re reducing the risk of outbreaks,” the pediatric infectious disease specialist said.

“Hopefully those outbreaks will be contained, and it won’t be as bad as it could have been.”

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Ontario supply teachers are concerned about heading back to school

Banerji points to what happened in Israel when schools reopened in May with few safety protocols, which led to a number of outbreaks.

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“Throwing the kids in without masks, without physical distancing is a recipe for disaster.”

On Wednesday, the Ontario government revealed its back-to-school outbreak plan, a 21-page report that describes what schools, boards, local public health units, teachers, principals, staff and students should do if there is a positive COVID-19 case, if someone is exposed to the virus outside of school or if a student gets sick during school hours.

Local public health units are responsible for determining whether an outbreak exists, managing it and determining when it can be declared over.

Preparing kids for school

How changes in the upcoming school year could affect children depends on how adults frame and explain those changes, according to Dr. Catherine Horvath, a child and family psychologist, as well as the founder and executive director at the Ottawa Centre For Resilience.

“I think if teachers and parents are really anxious and scared, then that’s going to affect the children,” Horvath said.

“Teachers have opportunities daily to be role models and to influence kids, as do parents. I think this is a really crucial time for that.”

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In general, Horvath added, parents should be open, honest and factual with the information they provide their children surrounding the pandemic and back-to-school at an age-appropriate level.

“You don’t need to hide information from them, but you don’t also need to flood them with it,” Horvath said.

“If they need more information or they want more, they’ll ask. So you can kind of follow their lead. If they’re asking questions, I’d recommend you’d answer them.”

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Relieving back to school stress for teens

For Mishra Tarc, it’s important to educate children on how to protect themselves at an early age.

“A lot of kids didn’t even wash their hands before this,” the education professor said. “Public health is really, really critical for education and learning because in order for someone to learn, they have to be healthy physically and mentally.”

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Banerji said parents can explain COVID-19 to children in reassuring ways, by saying that it’s not very harmful to children but that it can affect other people, so it’s important to stay away from other kids and wear masks.

“My concern is how do we support the most important adults in kids’ lives — their parents, their teachers, their administrators and educators, so that they can feel comfortable giving this sort of practical, positive messaging?” Horvath said.

Looking ahead

When it comes to going back to school, Horvath said every family must make the decision that’s best for them.

“I do support kids going back to school in an informed way and in a safe way, and I think it’s a shared responsibility,” Tarc said. “We shouldn’t leave it all to the teachers, we shouldn’t leave it all to the ministry, we shouldn’t leave it all to public health, and we shouldn’t leave it all to the parents.”

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In an email to Global News Wednesday, Ontario’s education minister’s spokesperson Caitlin Clark said the government’s plan to reopen schools has been informed by the “best medical and scientific minds in the country.”

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“We are proud to lead the nation in COVID-19 school reopening funding, an aggressive masking policy for grades 4 to 12, hiring over 1,300 custodians and $75 million in additional cleaning funding, along with the hiring of 500 public health nurses to support student health in our schools,” Clark wrote.

“The evidence is emerging, and our plan is a living document — it’s meant to be augmented and adapted to apply the best advice as it emerges.”

Clark said school boards have developed plans to best suit their local needs.

“We will never hesitate from taking further action to protect the health and safety of Ontario’s students and education staff,” Clark added.

Click to play video: 'Feds add over $760 million to support Ontario’s back-to-school plan'
Feds add over $760 million to support Ontario’s back-to-school plan

— With files from Global News’ Gabby Rodrigues, Jessica Patton and The Canadian Press


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