The pandemic has thrust governments into a more proactive role than anyone would have imagined just a few months ago. As Canada moves beyond the immediate COVID-19 health crisis, policymakers must seize the opportunity to implement bold, forward-looking reforms. These include redesigning income support programs for the unemployed, regulating the labour market in a way that encourages full-time, high wage jobs, and improving the distribution of risk and return between the public, the state, and the private sector.
However, if we are going to effectively confront these policy challenges, it is essential that kids are back in school full-time in September and that child care is in place at at least its pre-pandemic levels. Full-time schooling and adequate child care are the necessary foundations to a strong and equitable economic recovery.
A Statistics Canada study released on July 9, underscores the importance of getting kids back to school full-time.
Parents participating in the study report that their top concern was about balancing child care, schooling and work, with 74% of participants reporting feeling very or extremely concerned in this regard. This is directly related to the demands that have been placed on parents to keep up with their own work responsibilities, take care of their children without any external support such as child care or school, and help their children with academic activities. According to the study, families with only young school-aged children (i.e., children aged 11 and younger) were the most likely to be concerned about balancing child care, schooling and work (80% of these participants were very or extremely concerned).
Specific aspects of the demands on parents were explored in the Statistics Canada survey. Almost two in three parents were very or extremely concerned about managing their children’s behaviours, stress levels, anxiety and emotions, and almost half of parents were very or extremely concerned about having less patience, raising their voice, and scolding or yelling at their children.
Many parents reported simply being “at the end of their rope”.
Research indicates schools are not hotbeds of infection, and that children are less vulnerable to the virus and not as likely to transmit it.
In British Columbia, the province reopened schools in June on a voluntary basis. About a third of students went back in the first week, and the trial did not spark new cases.
The problem with part-time school: What to do with kids on “no school” days
Of course, getting kids back to school full time has to be done in a manner that keeps our children and educational workers safe and healthy. But safe and healthy doesn’t have to mean half-time.
Unfortunately, a return to school full-time in September seems increasingly unlikely in Ontario. The provincial government appears to be devoting little energy, creativity or additional funding to get kids back to school full time at the start of the new school year. Although the government says it won’t be forcing school boards to finalize the details of re-opening before August, a key recommendation in its most recent guidelines is “cohorting” students—keeping them in groups of 15 or fewer students with the same teacher all day. Since classes are usually about double that size, without a significant increase in provincial education funding, it appears that the government is tacitly encouraging school boards to at least start the year with a “hybrid learning” approach that will have children in school on alternate days, or maybe alternate weeks.
The government recommendations say cohorting is about “minimizing the number of students and teachers any individual comes in contact with, and maintaining consistency in those contacts as much as possible.” Obviously, this is in line with what hospitals and nursing homes do to reduce transmission and it makes contact tracing easier during an outbreak. In terms of elementary schools, it certainly seems more sensible than expecting young children to be able to physically distance or properly wear a mask all day long. The problem is there is no plan to provide a place for kids to go on the no-school days.
No place for kids to go on no-school days means this: If kids are only in school half-time in the fall, many children will disperse to informal daycares and babysitters on their days off (instantly increasing their number of contacts several times over, and presumably negating many of the intended benefits of school cohorting) and others will be at home with distracted parents or otherwise overwhelmed family members.
According to the guidelines, students will be assigned “curriculum linked work” and will participate online in “synchronous learning with their classmates” when they’re not in school. In other words, the province seems to imagine kids will be at home, with a dedicated screen per child and an adult available—and not busy working—to help facilitate high-quality remote learning. The assumption seems to be that families will manage this half-time schedule in the same way they’ve managed since the initial shutdown began in March.
But there is a very serious problem here: Most families haven’t been managing very well at all.
Parents can’t continue “triple shifts” indefinitely
These past 100 days, parents hunkered down. They carried on with little sleep and made impossible choices around potentially exposing elderly relatives to the virus so they could go to “essential” jobs while they watched the kids. They worked triple shifts as employees, homeschool teachers and parents. Parents cut back hours and lost jobs.
And they did it – it was an emergency after all. But they can’t keep on doing it indefinitely.
For the province of Ontario to tell parents to prepare to send children to school half-time, without providing a hint of a plan or funding to address the obvious problem of where children will go on the off days—and who will teach and care for them on the days they aren’t in a classroom—does not constitute “a school reopening plan.” It means our provincial government is essentially telling all the parents who are already at the very end of their ropes that the past three months have been fine. And that if parents were able to manage every day with no school, they can of course do every second day with no school.
But it isn’t fine. And it isn’t fair to parents, especially not to women who are statistically most likely to have to reduce work or quit their jobs to care for children. And it isn’t fair to kids either.
In their recommendations for the school reopening plan released this month, doctors from SickKids hospital were in favour of cohorting younger age groups as much as possible, but specifically advised against doing so “in a manner that compromises daily school attendance.” In other words, the SickKids report strongly recommended that kids be in school five days per week. The SickKids guidelines have been criticized by some for too heavily discounting the potential risks of COVID-19 in children, but their emphasis on the physical and mental health impacts of school closures and inconsistency on young children’s development and well being, is worth taking seriously. It is simply heartbreaking to see how destabilized children have seemed after the sudden loss of their wider social worlds: all the friends, the teachers they’d grown close to, the beloved coaches.
Increased provincial funding crucial
Clearly, governments, public health officials and school boards across the country are in a difficult situation. There’s no perfect school reopening plan that can 100 per cent ensure the safety and well being of all students, teachers, staff and families. However, that does not excuse the fact that the province has not allocated additional funding to create more childcare spots, has not provided a budget or initiative to hire or redeploy more teachers to create smaller classes, and has provided no guidance offered for how parents are supposed to keep children limited to their cohorts on the days they aren’t in school.
On June 19, the Ontario government did announce that it is investing $736 million more in public education for the 2020-21 school year, increasing the total to more than $25.5 billion.
This funding is through the Grants for Student Needs (GSN) program. According to the government, Ontario’s average per-pupil funding amount has reached $12,525, which is an increase of $250 over the previous year.
However, the increased GSN funding is completely inadequate to return kids to school full-time in a “safe manner” if a “safe manner” means in classes of 15 or fewer students with the same teacher all day. A real solution requires investing in more than just increased school sanitizing schedules and better technology. The province’s promise of funds for student mental health services and special needs support is a good start, but it’s a reactive, insufficient strategy. A truly responsible, proactive plan for the fall would include hiring more teachers, teacher’s aids, early childhood educators and janitorial staff.
The province and school boards must also work with municipalities and other organizations to consider other available spaces in our communities where education can take place safely and in person. Certain offices, libraries, community centres, arenas and university campuses may be empty or underutilized after the Labour Day weekend, making them the perfect alternatives for holding smaller classes. And early in the school year, when the weather permits, outdoor classrooms are also good options. If our government is actually concerned about children and families, it needs to invest now to avoid a cascade of further public health, education and economic crises in years to come.
Some will argue that half-time school is better than no school at all; that something is better than nothing. But the government’s current policy rests on the offensive assumption that “parents will just figure it out”. Parents shouldn’t have to figure it out but for those who feel they can – or for those who still worry that Ontario schools with not be safe in September – keeping their kids at home should be an option.
Simply put, the current Ontario government school re-opening plan is nowhere near the best we can do.
The Ontario Government should treat the need to reopen schools on a full-time basis as an emergency.
Reopening schools full time is a difficult challenge, but much more could be done by the provincial government to rise to that challenge.
Parents and students are being asked to wait until August for answers. Ultimately, there are certain risks that will have to be taken, but let’s also remember that each day children are out of school presents increased social, health and economic risks to children and parents.
Ontario’s two million students have been out of school for more than three months and school is set to resume in less than two months — and still no hard decisions have been made. The province, citing the need for local decision-making, has thrown it back to the local school boards with the direction of regional medical officers of health.
Ontario children need a return to conventional, five day/wk. classroom instruction — a superior learning experience — combined with enhanced health and safety protocols that will keep students and educational workers safe and healthy.
The Ontario government needs to act now to make this happen.