Toronto – August 13, 2020 – As September fast approaches, provincial governments across the country are scrambling to reopen schools in order to get kids back into the classroom and help parents return to work. Everyone recognizes the importance of children going back to school, not only for their own mental health, but also to relieve parents of the additional burdens of teaching kids at home. However, back-to-school plans in many provinces are leaving parents concerned about their children’s health and safety and the possibility of new COVID-19 outbreaks.
The back-to-school plan introduced by the Saskatchewan Party government is a good example of why parents are so concerned. On August 4, the government released their back-to-school plan, which leaves important decisions about precautions such as mask use and temperature testing up to individual school divisions in the first phase of reopening. The plan does not include any specific information about contact tracing when a case is identified at a school, or how frequently testing will be conducted and under what circumstances.
The plan also lacks the additional funding needed to ensure that necessary precautions are in place to protect the health and safety of students, teachers, and other staff, such as sufficient personal protective equipment (PPE). There is no plan to lower class sizes, making it almost impossible to enforce any type of physical distancing. There is no additional funding for a transportation safety plan, or for hiring more instructional and support staff, including substitute teachers and educational assistants. The plan lacks clear procedures on how schools should respond when students or staff test positive for or have symptoms of COVID-19, and there are few details on how schools should address an outbreak. The Saskatchewan Party plan also fails to identify alternative and distance learning solutions, including the use of unused spaces close to schools for students and teachers who are immunocompromised. The government is demonstrating a shameless willingness to put children and teens, teachers and support staff, and all their families at risk by rolling out a haphazard return plan.
And the Sask Party government is not alone in their ill-conceived plan to reopen schools. In Alberta, the plans are much the same. While the Kenney government can find billions of dollars to invest in pipelines, there is no new funding for schools to deal with the additional costs of addressing the pandemic, and the province’s plan also downloads important decisions onto parents and school districts.
Like Saskatchewan, there is no plan to limit class sizes to ensure physical distancing, and no money to help make schools safer in the era of the coronavirus. In fact, Kenney has gone as far as to suggest that teachers will be responsible for helping to clean and sanitize schools, on top of their teaching responsibilities and efforts to keep children safe in the classroom.
It is not much different in Ontario, where the Ford government continues to ignore parents’ number one concern about school reopening: class sizes. It is also failing to provide the additional funding required for a safe reopening. In Saskatchewan, Alberta, and Ontario, the NDP Official Oppositions have provided detailed alternative plans to keep our children safe, with the funding needed to dramatically reduce class sizes and prevent outbreaks.
Children are not immune to COVID-19. As we have seen in the United States, the reopening of schools with inadequate funding and plans has resulted in a spike in coronavirus cases among school-aged children. There is also concerns around the steps that parents should take if their child becomes infected with the virus. Without adequate sick or family leave provisions, and with the lack of affordable daycare options available, parents themselves may be forced out of work and this would predominantly affect women workers.
Children do need to get back to school, but the plans being put forward by conservative governments fail to provide the necessary funding and controls to ensure that the return to school is safe, successful, and does not lead to additional COVID-19 outbreaks that could potentially result in another round of shutdowns.