The early August joint statement from SickKids, CHEO, Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital, Kingston Health Sciences Centre, Children’s Hospital at London Health Sciences Centre, McMaster Children’s Hospital and Unity Health Toronto (https://tinyurl.com/y3b2955d), “emphasized the importance of routine and structure that comes with returning to school five days a week.” It is also important to note that their guidance was just that, guidance. Just as they are the experts in the realm of medicine and mental health, they underscore their understanding that educators are the experts in their field. And so, they have provided their expertise and have deferred to the educators to implement their recommendations within the diverse and unique schools and communities. No two school districts and no two schools are the same. Application of their guidance will and should look different in each school, but should also look and feel very similar in many ways.
This is all well and good, but knowing that there are guidelines and knowing that they will be tweaked to take into account situational differences will not completely remove all risks nor will it allay the fears and anxiety of all parents and caregivers who are preparing to send their children back to school and very much into the unknown. As is always the case when decisions regarding children are at hand, getting as much information as possible informs the decision-making process and ensures that individuals are enabled to make thoughtful, informed choices.
Below you will find my take on what I believe to be important things to consider when deciding whether or not to send your child back to a physical school in a few weeks. And although there is certainly a disparity between public and private education, there is greater similarity than one would think when it comes to the preparedness of individual schools. Just as not all public schools are created equally, neither are all private schools. Parents are reminded that paying tuition fees does not mean that the plan or plans are without flaws and or limitations. As such, all parents should take into consideration all aspects of the plan their school has put in place and ensure that it has been thoughtfully and thoroughly considered. They should also know what Plan B looks like. And above all else, I encourage parents to ask questions.
All the documents I have read, at least all the good ones, provide a list of resources and they reference those who have been involved in the planning process. Really good schools have sought input from parents and students, as well. Most reference the joint statement I mentioned at the outset. Read as many of these as you can and understand who the experts being relied upon are. Although we are not as litigious as our neighbours to the south, you will no doubt see the names of lawyers or law firms in the appendices of your school’s plan. In fact, most independent schools in Ontario reference the same law firm. Understand that as well-meaning as everyone is, they also need to ensure that they have covered their posteriors. Not a bad thing, but make sure you understand your exposure and the legal context of the plan.
Though returning to school is no doubt what is best for most kids, the process still comes with significant mental health considerations. What support or supports are in place? Many schools have added mental health practitioners on an ad hoc basis and some have even created new leadership positions to attend to this vital area of concern. Just be mindful of qualifications and ratios. One counsellor for 1,000 kids won’t make much of an impact. Neither will a crash PD course for overtaxed teachers who are not qualified to deal with mental health issues and who are more than likely dealing with their own mental health concerns. Something is better than nothing, but be aware that this is an area where you may have to seek assistance for your child on your own if you can.
Very few schools… public or private… boast state of the art ventilation systems. In fact, many of us could return to our former grade schools and high schools and note very little change in this regard since we attended. While most health officials say that ventilation concerns can be allayed through proper protocols, there is much agreement that poor indoor air quality and airflow is one of the major risk factors with respect to the transmission of COVID-19. So, above and beyond the wearing of face masks, social distancing, the replacement of HVAC filters, opening windows, and getting kids outside as much as possible, ask about the ventilation system in your school. Realistically, there is little time and even less money to resolve any serious issues, but it is important to understand the state of of the physical plant.
All school plans mention enhanced cleaning protocols worded one way or another. The question to ask is what does this mean? Again, plans that I have read vary from very simplistic and the regurgitation of Ministry of Health guidelines to very specific and detailed explanations of previous and newly instated policies. Of course, this is also an area where the lawyers have been hard at work going so far as discerning between “cleaning” and “sanitizing” and underscoring that the system won’t be perfect. This is accurate but just another reminder for you to understand what your exposure might be. Also, boards and schools are very careful to make sure that you as a parent understand your responsibilities with respect to preparing and outfitting your child with respect masks, sanitizer and proper social distancing so as to reduce their liability.
Time and money. That’s what training comes down to. Public schools generally do not allow teachers back into school until a few days before classes. Has this changed at your school? What training and professional development will your child’s teachers receive before the kids return in a few days? In most cases, private schools have greater flexibility but even they will need more time and money than they probably have at their disposal to properly prepare teachers for the new reality. So make sure you ask about and understand what new tools teachers have received to flip from their regular routine. What is being asked of teachers is simply not as straightforward as what has been expected of other professionals. Remember your child’s teacher is a passionate professional who just wants to do their best under the circumstances. In order to do so, they must receive proper training and support. Make sure this is the case.
A number of the reopening of school plans I have seen mention the efficacy of outdoor education and just plain getting kids outside. The research is pretty universal in suggesting that getting kids outside as much as possible boosts academic performance and learning and is also great with respect to physical and mental health. No doubt the research is accurate, but each individual student needs to be considered. Not all kids, or teachers for that matter, enjoy the great outdoors and many find it difficult to concentrate and learn outside of the traditional classroom setting. Like all of the areas I discuss, there’s no one size fits all in terms of outdoor facilities or academic subject matter. Chatting about a novel or a poem under a willow tree is great but what about Advanced Placement Calculus or the like? That’s not to say we can’t teach all subjects outside, it just means that a good deal of thought and planning needs to go into any outdoor academic activity. Be sure to understand not just the academic justification and lesson plan, but also the health and safety aspects of holding classes outside.
This is an area where schools and school boards differ a great deal. Granted, class sizes, the timetable, etc., are considerations that are very site-specific. Having said that, what is the plan outside of class time to provide academic support for children? However good or bad the delivery of the academic program was at your child’s school from March to June, everyone can agree that improvements can be made. Hopefully, those minor tweaks and wholesale changes have been addressed. But what of the time outside of the timetabled class? How will your child get the extra assistance required and available during a regular school day? How will the needs of individual learning styles be attended to? Obviously, this, too, is site-specific, but should also be part of your calculus when considering your child’s return to school in September.
I am not suggesting that all the planning and asking of questions will make any plan perfect. Nor will it allay all fears and anxiety. Most back to school plans that I have read stress that it is a living document that will need to be adjusted which is realistic. As well, we need to remember that we are dealing with children and, well, kids will be kids. Their job, and ours when we were their age, is to test the boundaries and to see where there is wiggle room and elasticity. Granted the stakes this time around are greater, but they still think that they are immortal, again just as we did. Things will not go exactly as planned. Mistakes will be made and adjustments will be necessary. Just remember two things. First, you are making the best decision for your child that you possibly can. There is no right answer. Even with all the science taken into consideration, this is not an exact science. So go easy on yourself, parents. And secondly, remember that teachers, administrators and everyone at your school are in this for the right reason and that they are doing the best that they can under the circumstances. They will make mistakes, but they too will adjust. So, be kind to them. And finally, if I can be of assistance with any of the aforementioned items or any other aspect of your own plan, please contact me.