In the coming weeks Ontario’s children will return to school, after several months of distance learning capped off the regular school year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The decision for students to return to in-class learning was made to address the mental health and emotional impacts the lockdown has had on children, as well as the stressors parents faced in finding childcare when returning to the workplace.
To reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission, students of all grades in Toronto are mandated to wear non-medical or cloth masks. And while the provincial government has assured that school staff will be provided with personal protective equipment, it is not clear how extensive these provisions will be.
Despite these safety precautions being put in place, we are still likely to see COVID-19 outbreaks in school settings. The pandemic isn’t over – the health and safety of all children and educators should be made a priority this school year.
The reopening of schools is a multifaceted issue, and with missteps potentially exacerbating inequities in both health and educational outcomes, the Province needs to conduct an equity-focused impact assessment on the matter. This would involve systematic assessments of potential health impacts, as well as effects on educational success for students before schools re-open. While these assessments occur, it is important to keep students at home and improve online learning by continuing of COVID-19 benefits focused on supporting lower-income families.
Remote learning has been criticized due to its role in intensifying educational disparities for students across marginalized groups during the pandemic. Students from these groups, who often face barriers linked to household income, were less likely to have technological resources and parents on-hand to support them to complete learning activities.
These students also make up the populations at highest risk of contracting COVID-19 when schools re-open. The City of Toronto recently published data showing how it is the city’s lower-income, racialized communities who are bearing the brunt of COVID-19 cases.
Due to constraints at home, children living in hotspot neighbourhoods are more likely to return to school, putting them at higher risk of contracting the virus. Additionally, these neighbourhoods are likely to have crowded and suboptimal housing, which could add challenges to containing the spread of COVID-19 if an infected child were to bring it home. This risk is minimized in communities with lower infection rates. However, as infection rates vary across the city, we may need staged school re-openings depending on neighbourhood conditions.
The initial assertion that children are asymptomatic and that they cannot spread the virus has been debunked through emerging evidence. Studies have shown that although all children are susceptible to COVID-19, children under the age of 5 have significantly greater amounts of viral nucleic acid, compared to older children and adults. This indicator of children being drivers of the virus spread is deeply concerning.
Parents are already expressing their worries surrounding the plan for the upcoming school year, and with in-class attendance made voluntary, it is clear that families who have the means will have the choice of keeping their children safe at home.
Again, this choice will likely exclude families in the hardest-hit neighbourhoods – those mainly comprised of essential workers who have to go into work to make ends meet, especially now that COVID-19-related financial supports are dwindling. It will not include families in lower-income households who are unable to afford digital devices for their children to take part in quality remote learning. And it certainly will not include families who do not have the means to create “pandemic pods,” in which small groups of children from multiple families are home-schooled with private tutors.
Choice is a privilege, and it is important to note that not all families who have the means will keep their children at home. Some of these families may end up choosing to send their children to school for a variety of reasons. For instance, they may not have enough space, or they may want their child to increase their socialization with peers. Then, there are the families that will want a hybrid of online and in-class learning.
We need a back-to-school solution that will equitably provide all families with choices, and conducting an equity-focused impact assessment will allow policymakers to decide on what these choices are. And until this assessment is completed, we will need sufficient resources for equitable online learning. This means providing increased funding to families who are not able to afford high speed internet, technological devices, and investing in additional educators to help students navigate remote learning.
The Province of Ontario is supporting families through the COVID-19 Emergency Assistance program, and through the Support for Families initiative. However, it is unclear how long into the school year these supports will stay in place. The funds provided to families are also not enough for children to afford the supplies they need to thrive and excel in school. Expanding these supports will enable parents pay for the resources support their children’s education and allow them to stay at home with their children during the pandemic.
It is important to note that the Province of Ontario made upwards of $3 billion available for the healthcare system and its frontline workers at the beginning of the pandemic, yet has only invested approximately $800 million into the safe re-opening of our schools.
The federal government has also announced $2 billion to go into a safe restart plan in Canada. Ontario will receive $762 million in two installments of $381 million for the fall and winter. While this is a welcome addition, the Province is allocating most of the funding on re-opening schools in September, and not enough to bolster remote learning for two million students and their educators. Without a thorough assessment of the concerns this money can address, these decisions seem to be a bit short-sighted.
With the high likelihood of a second wave of COVID-19 infections in the fall, supports for remote learning need to be expanded with additional funding, and extended well into the 2020-2021 school year.
By equitably providing our children and educators with the support they need, we can provide children access to the quality education they deserve while keeping everyone in our communities safe.