Getting Back to School Safely with a Full Understanding of the Risks

opinionred 100x100By Jim Young

July 29th, 2020

BURLINGTON, ON
The Ontario government will soon roll out its back to school plans for September amid ever changing case numbers, a phase three re-opening; the results of which no-one can predict and an atmosphere of apprehension among parents, teachers and businesses who would all have liked a plan in place by now to allow more time to prepare for the work required to accommodate all sides of this very tricky equation.

Some of the troubling questions that plan must address will include the following:

Must teachers self-quarantine for 14 days before school opens? If not what is the risk of a recently asymptomatic teacher working in a classroom? The same applies to students. Should they self-quarantine before going back? The risk of asymptomatic transmission is a two way street.

If a high school teacher has 5 classes each day of 12 socially distanced students, 60 in total for any given day, and the teacher tests positive for the virus, do all those students now need to be tested? How will parents be notified? Will testing be done at school or do parents have to take students to an offsite facility? Do the other family members of these students now have to be tested? Do they all now have to self- quarantine while teacher is treated? What is the protocol for allowing teachers and students to return?

Child getting off school bus

Are we likely to see scenes like this in the near future? A student just busting to get into a classroom.

What happens if someone living in the same home as the teacher gets sick? Must the teacher now take 14 days off to self-quarantine? If teachers have to self-quarantine for 14 days, will they be paid sick leave? Where will boards find supply teachers when a regular teacher is quarantined? Knowing that these kids have been exposed and maybe spreading asymptomatically, will supply teachers want to assume that risk?

Supply teachers teach in multiple schools across a board, if they are called to teach a class in an unwittingly infected school, then move on to another school, how many schools and children need to quarantine at that point? Will a contact tracing/testing system be in place? If so how will it cope with so many variables in a timely manner? Supply teachers only get paid when called in, if they get sick on the job will they be paid for absences?

If a student in a school shows symptoms, where and how do they isolate at school? Who makes the Covid/non-Covid call? Who supervises that isolation? Do the whole class and teacher now need to quarantine? What about contacts in the playground, hallways, common areas, washrooms and drinking fountains? Who monitors hallways and bathroom breaks? How will increased stress levels among teachers and students affect the quality of the teaching/learning we are returning them to?

How should teachers handle everyday proximity issues like checking and marking student work? How do students share common resources and equipment? These issues are particularly fraught for educational assistants with special need students who may not understand physical distancing or be unable to function at a safe distance, who may need feeding, diapering or hand over hand guidance, who may spit or drool.

Even before kids get to school, will school bus pick-up points be monitored and safely distanced? Will school buses be sanitized after every journey? Who will enforce safe distancing on school buses, while the driver concentrates on the road and traffic? Currently, a low wage job, local schoolboards and school bus companies have difficulty recruiting drivers in a pre-Covid world. Who will drive the bus, for minimum wage and limited hours in the present high risk environment?

Who will provide PPE and sanitizing resources? Older teachers close to retirement or with compromised immune systems are most vulnerable and almost certainly at higher risk. Will teachers and educational assistants retain their WSIB right to refuse unsafe work?

Are we prepared for the unthinkable? How will students, staff, parents or the entire school system cope when a teacher or student dies from Covid19? A horrifying thought; but this virus does kill. Will provisions for this be in the plan?

At a time when school boards and politicians meet virtually, reducing their risk while discussing the safe return to classrooms; with all the face to face, physical contact and respiratory risk that entails; Dare I suggest it will not be safe for children to go back to classrooms until school boards lead by example; walk the walk and hold the meetings and votes, on returning to school, face to face in those same classrooms.

This piece was written with advice from local schoolteachers, educational assistants and various Canadian and US online educational forums.

Jim Young is an Aldershot resident who writes frequently for the Gazette and has in the past delegated at City Hall just as frequently.

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