School Reopening in a Pandemic: Smooth sailing or Pandora’s box?

Posted By: Tim Heffernan and Martin Lebrun, Ontario and BC Educators
 Teachers of 2020 - Heidie Ambrose


They say that school days are the best days of our lives. This may be debatable at the best of times. But as the topic of this year’s return to school dominates media and family discussions, one thing is certain: everything is uncertain.

With the number of COVID cases currently on the rise in Canada, the discussion on safely reopening schools has been characterized by fear and anger. Teachers unions are mounting social media campaigns for safer, smaller classes, while governments defend their budget lines. Provincial governments have fuelled uncertainty by continually changing their back-to-school plans – Ontario has changed it approximately 37 times! The changes have often been positive, as governments bow to pressure from educators, parents and health professionals to improve health and safety protocols. But there’s still a long way to go in many cases.

Students and parents are bewildered and worried. Students have missed socializing with their peers, vital for social development. For working-class and poorer families, home schooling has been a nightmare or impossible. Students in homes with no or poor internet connection and a lack of computers are at a huge disadvantage. For some students, school is the only safe space or place where they get a vital meal. In small homes the kitchen table has been the workplace, the school and where people eat, not ideal for learning. Home school has increased social disadvantages. For families where the one or two parents have to go to work and childcare from grandparents or other family members or friends has not been possible due to isolation, the last months have been a nightmare.

It’s important to recognize that the discussion is about more than children going back to school. It is also about the function of education under capitalism:

  • To prepare future workers with the skills and knowledge to slot into the capitalist economy.
  • To inculcate students in the broad ideology of capitalism, which would act as a bulwark against competing ideologies, such as socialism.
  • On a practical, day-to-day level, to provide a system whereby parents can go to work to generate profits for their employers (i.e., school as babysitter).

It’s unlikely that business and government leaders have been losing sleep over the first two points since COVID disrupted school almost six months ago. Their main concern is how to build the “post-COVID” economic recovery. Workers, while not so much interested in a capitalist recovery, need to go to work and don’t have a ton of money to spend on childcare. This is especially important when CERB runs out, evictions start happening and deferred payments are due.

International experience

While making back-to-school plans during a pandemic hasn’t been done in almost a century in Canada, the provinces’ Ministries of Education could have used other nations’ reopening plans, trials and errors to guide them.

After months of mass COVID testing, South Korea gradually reopened its schools in May. Districts used a hybrid model, alternating in-person and online learning. Students have temperature checks at school entrances, are required to wear masks, socially distance in classrooms, use personal desks with Plexiglas barriers and frequently wash their hands. In June, a resurgence of cases around Seoul was met with school closures and aggressive testing, effectively stopping further COVID infections. However, a mass rally of right-wing Protestant churches in early August made infection numbers climb again. While schools are going through a second wave of temporary closures, significantly, schools are not infection sites.

When schools reopened on May 17 in Israel, after just two months in pandemic lockdown, it seemed COVID had been brought under control. But the results are now a disastrous “cautionary tale.” The day the government removed all class size restrictions, there were only ten confirmed cases in the country. In just ten days, an outbreak was underway at a Jerusalem high school, spreading to dozens of other schools. Eventually, hundreds of schools were closed, and tens of thousands of students and teachers were in mandatory quarantine. Experts said overconfidence, a lack of enforcement of preventive measures, including physical distancing and masks, and inadequate ventilation all combined to create a disaster that could have been prevented. In mid-August, Israel’s per capita cases were among the highest in the world.

Schools in Germany and Denmark reopened in May. The school days in both countries are shorter and mixed with online lessons, so different year groups can share classrooms, at different times, which might now only hold ten pupils. Younger children returned first in Denmark, older students in Germany. There were smaller groups of students, so social distancing could be maximised. Groups were maintained for the duration of the day, with regular hand-washing breaks. In Germany, face masks were mandatory in communal indoor areas, whereas in Denmark masks were not required. So far there have been no infection rate spikes in either countries.

International trial and error suggest that either smaller class sizes with greater social distancing, the extensive use of personal protective equipment or both are the most effective at making schools safe.

Canada’s provincial plans

Governments’ unwillingness to invest the necessary resources, both human and capital, to ensure a safe return to school, have resulted in delayed and incomplete back-to-school plans. The Federal government’s $2 billion in funding for improved air ventilation, sanitation and protective equipment is welcome, but divided over Canada’s 15,500 schools (an average of $130,000 per school) is only enough to hire a few custodians, buy some hand sanitizer and additional cleaning supplies.

Many provinces have delayed school openings for a week and still there are many unknowns regarding reopening. Having outlined often inadequate health guidelines, Ministries of Education have passed the buck to districts/school boards on everything from online learning options to whether to implement hybrid schedules. Premiers and Ministers have spoken favourably about the effective use of outdoor classrooms in the 1920s and 1930s public health emergencies. Outdoor learning would help overcome the hurdles of poor ventilation and social distancing, while providing the proven benefits of fresh air and freedom of movement to students while they learn. COVID is providing an opportunity to embark on outdoor learning, but governments have passed all the planning to districts/school boards and have provided no funding to make it a reality.

If governments had been serious about creating safe, creative and comprehensive back-to-school plans, they could have organized committees of educators, parents, and students to decide how and when schools should reopen.

Most provinces are operating with the model of elementary students attending regular-sized classes, but staying in cohorts, while senior grades have a “hybrid” system, alternating in-person and online classes.

On August 27, Québec was the first Canadian province to see a return to school. One teacher said, “I feel like we’re starting the year blind, and it’s wildly unnecessary for us to start the year this blind. Kids are not very cautious; they don’t take it seriously. It’s very likely that in the first week, one of these older kids is going to mockingly cough on somebody else just for the sake of it.” These fears are justified. From August 26 to September 3, the Québec government revealed 47 COVID cases in schools – including preschool, elementary, secondary and adult career centres. However, independent research puts the case number at 80.

As school districts/school boards offer online options to nervous or immune-compromised parents and students, in-person class sizes have increased. School boards will have no choice but to collapse and combine some classrooms as administrators try to take into account the number of students opting for home-based online learning. Boards do not have the choice of keeping potentially lower class sizes that result from not filling spaces left by students opting for online learning. They have to adhere to funding agreements with the government, which means class sizes will remain the same despite the student opt outs. (This video explains the phenomenon of collapsed classes). Across Alberta, second to reopen, 10 to 30 percent of parents and students have opted to stay online, causing some collapsed classes to bulge to over 30 or even 40 students. So much for social distancing! As of September 2, a Toronto school board survey revealed that 70 percent of elementary students and 78 percent of secondary students would be returning to class in person. This confirms that the majority of parents and students want to return to school, especially given the alternative of remote learning at home on a computer, but many parents are reluctant to send their kids to school if safety measures seem inadequate. Education needs to be safe for those at home and those in the classroom!

BC students will not be required to socially distance or wear masks in their classrooms, despite a recent COVID spike in the province. Provincial Health Officer (PHO) Dr. Bonnie Henry says students will be safe in the “controlled environments” of their cohorts of up to 60 in elementary and up to 120 in secondary school. The BC Teachers’ Federation is calling for federal funding to be applied to reducing classroom density, but has been met by Dr. Bonnie Henry’s argument that one metre social distancing is sufficient since “it’s not like we’re having close contact with a whole group of random people who are then going to other places.” That is literally what will happen. Students live their own lives outside of classrooms and everyone will automatically be in the same bubble as each others’ families, friends and coworkers! And this from a PHO who, in a video public service announcement, created the impression that there were would be fewer children in a classroom than there will be in reality.

The Nova Scotia Teachers Union (NSTU) president Paul Wozney says the province’s schools are “in a state of chaos and aren’t ready to welcome students back next week.” He says the regional centres for education (RCEs) are “entirely focused on trying to promote the government’s unsafe return to school plan to the public. While teachers are in their classrooms preparing for the arrival of their students under impossible circumstances, education entities are busy tweeting photos of signs and floor decals. Meanwhile, with just two business days until the arrival of students, ventilation systems have yet to be inspected or fixed, windows still don’t open, safe drinking water is not available, proper hand-washing stations with soap and running water have not been installed, and hallways are filled with old furniture.” The NSTU sent the Minister of Education a letter asking him to delay the start of classes by holding more professional development days at the beginning of the school year. The premier rejected it out of hand.

In Ontario, there has been similar disdain shown to the teachers’ unions, with Ford trying to drive a wedge between the union leaderships and members. Before Labour Day, the four Ontario teacher unions filed a labour board complaint alleging that Ontario’s school reopening plan violates its own workplace safety laws. It is not only teachers who will be exposed to the virus, anyone who works in a school – janitors, school secretaries, kitchen staff, education assistants, administrators – is at risk.

Infrastructure needs

The scientific evidence over the last few months has shown that children are not just transmitters of the virus to others in the community but that they themselves can also become sick from COVID. In addition, there is the infrastructure issue of ventilation in schools. This was a problem pre-COVID. Lowering class sizes and staggering when cohorts take lessons in order to keep students within a smaller bubble are important. There is no magic number for ideal class sizes because it depends on the density and airspace within individual classrooms. Air quality is critical. As one expert said, “You can shrink a class, you can take kids out of the room, but if you don’t ventilate the room, the ones who remain are still in danger. Some classrooms don’t even have windows. I’ve walked by older schools where it’s clear that windows have been painted shut for years.” Buildings built in the 1980s or even the early 1990s could not meet the ventilation requirements of today, even without taking COVID-19 into account. In Québec alone, more than half of the schools were officially classed as being in poor condition. The backlog on school repairs in Ontario is currently a whopping $16.3 billion.

Ontario did announce additional money in mid-August – $50 million for school ventilation systems, $18 million in supports for online learning. Too little, too late!

Smaller Classes, Safer Schools

If social distancing is going to be maintained (and the medical experts conclude that this is the single most important measure to counter the virus), then class size is a crucial element in the equation. This applies particularly to provinces that are operating on the basis of classes as normal, notwithstanding their use of cohorts and social distancing in common areas in the school. Without smaller classes, cohorts make COVID infection tracking easier, but do not provide any concrete safety for staff and students unless masks are worn in class in the absence of social distancing or physical barriers like Plexiglas.

An online petition calling Ontario’s back-to-school plan “disturbing,” gained more than 200,000 signatures. It calls for class sizes in elementary schools to be reduced in order to accommodate for physical distancing and smaller cohorts. The problem for governments is that reducing class size is expensive as it requires the hiring of more teachers. In Ontario, it’s worth pointing out that Ford has said he wants classes “as small as possible.” This is a big change from eight months ago when his government was engaged in contract bargaining with teacher unions. Then, pre-COVID, his position was to increase secondary class sizes from an existing average of 22 to 28.

Opting out and privatization vs. public education

Obviously, students with compromised immune systems should have ways to opt out of having to attend – schools should accommodate them. However, when governments allow some students to stay home (because they have supervision, support, a good internet connection and a functioning device that allows online research and word-processing) it goes against the point of public school, providing equal opportunities and equity in an unequal world. Governments, because of their cheap, half-baked reopening plans, are providing opting-out excuses to the wealthy and those with a parent(s) working from home. Working-class families, with both parents having to work, don’t have the luxury of choosing between remote and in-class. Furthermore, public schools provide all students with key services including counselling, food programs, after-school care, Wi-Fi, etc.

There is strong evidence of increased enrolment in private schools, as wealthier parents are attracted by smaller class sizes in these schools. And it’s not just class sizes: many are offering an expanded outdoor program, air purifiers in every room and more hand-washing stations. If governments don’t spend what is needed on making schools safe, they risk the future of public education and the development of a two-tiered system with quality education for the rich and underfunded schools for the working class. (But maybe that is what some of them want.)

We need a broad movement to make schools safe:

  • Hire more teachers, support staff and custodial staff to allow classes of 15 students to permit social distancing.
  • Access to high quality, free internet for all!
  • Accommodations, including online options, for immuno-compromised or at-risk staff and students.
  • Provide PPE for all staff and students. Make masks mandatory!
  • Regular testing with rapid results available to staff and students.
  • Teachers’ unions to mobilize their members beyond social media campaigns and legal challenges to push for safe and well-funded reopening plans; strike if necessary.
  • Our school infrastructure is crumbling. We need a massive jobs program to revamp school infrastructure!
  • Teachers’ unions link with public sector unions facing cuts to fight for the working and living conditions we need!
  • No layoffs! No cuts! Tax the rich to fund education!

[Top image: Heidie Ambrose]