Back to School in the Pandemic Period

It’s time for parents to prepare their children to go back to school. Find out why getting back to class this year feels very different across the globe.

 A friend of mine shared a dilemma with me the other day. She’s a young mother and her first child, a daughter, is ready to start kindergarten in the fall.

She explained that the schools in our area will be reopening, but it’s not clear how safe they’ll be. The provincial government has left most of the back to school guidelines to the local school boards to sort out.

As a result, parents like her don’t know what to expect or their rights and responsibilities. Typically, in the middle of August, parents would be shopping for backpacks, notebooks and pencils. 

Might Not Mind Having Kids Out of the House

 In regular times, they might even be secretly looking forward to getting the kids back to school. If the truth were told, they might not mind having them out of the house for a few hours.

Instead, this year families feel a sense of foreboding. Parents are conflicted between wanting to ensure that their children get the education they need and preventing any harm from the novel coronavirus. Many are considering defying the guidelines and keeping their kids at home.

This isn’t a local issue. The same concerns are happening around the world. On the one hand, parents and communities want to guard their kids against harm. On the other, they want to give them the best possible educational opportunities.

43% of Schools Worldwide Couldn’t Provide Soap and Water

 Last week, the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF Joint Monitoring Program (JMP), issued a report. They found that 43% of schools worldwide couldn’t provide students with necessary handwashing facilities like soap and water.

As we’ve all heard ad nauseum, these are deal-breakers when it comes to social distancing. Henrietta Fore is the Executive Director of UNICEF.

 She outlined the issue this way, “We must prioritize children’s learning. This means making sure that schools are safe to reopen – including with access to hand hygiene, clean drinking water and safe sanitation.”

Three-Quarters of Schools Had No Basic Hygiene Service

 The UN has identified sixty countries that are facing a full-blown humanitarian crisis because of COVID-19. When the pandemic began, about half of the kids in these countries attended a school with no basic sanitation and more like three-quarters didn’t have even a basic hygiene service at their schools.

Looking around the globe, we find that there are 818 million children who go to schools with no facilities for basic hand washing. As we all realize, this will put them at risk of contracting COVID-19 and other infectious diseases when they go back to school.

70% of Schools Can’t Offer Basic Hand Washing Facilities

 About a third of these kids, just under 300 million, live in sub-Saharan Africa. If we focus on the world’s least developed countries, about 70% of schools can’t offer their students the necessary handwashing facilities.

 In fact, about half of these schools in the least developed world have no running water or any other basic sanitation. The report points to the same balancing act that parents around the world struggle with this back to school season.

As the report puts it, “Prolonged closures will have negative impacts on learning outcomes and disrupt school-based services essential for the nutrition, health, welfare and protection of vulnerable children.” Yet, the JMP worries that they can still “identify a range of measures that need to be in place for schools to reopen and operate safely.”

 Governments Lack the Will to Put Solution in Place

 How can we resolve this puzzle? The solution has been around for a while, but governments lack the will to put it in place.

 The WHO and UNICEF have a program that monitors international progress on providing people with water, sanitation and hygiene. Naturally, it has an acronym-it’s called WASH.

WASH has been in place ever since the UN enacted its Sustainable Development Goals five years ago. The goal is to get proper sanitation and hygiene into every school in the world by 2030.

 Need to Move Seven Times Faster on Clean Running Water

 This all sounds good, but real progress on the ground has been far too slow. Suppose we’re serious about reaching these goals. In that case, we need to be moving seven times faster on clean running water, five times faster on sanitation and four times faster on hygiene. 

I’m not trying to make our local concerns about going back to school during the pandemic sound like “first-world problems.” In many ways, families are families, and our worries are the same as those in the third world.

 Children recover from COVID-19 quickly in most, but not all, cases. However, they are carriers and having groups of them collect in close quarters is sure to spread the virus throughout every community.

 Lack of Back to School Leadership on Display in Ontario

Here in Ontario, the same lack of back to school leadership that we see worldwide is on display. Toronto Star columnist Bruce Arthur reported on Premier Doug Ford announcing our province’s plan for returning to school. Reportedly, the Premier called it “not his government’s plan.”

Apparently realizing his blunder the next day, he backed away from attributing the plan to outside “health advice.” Instead, Premier Ford announced, ““At the end of the day, who’s responsible? This guy right here. I’m responsible.”

Parents’ Concerns Remain Unaddressed

 It’s refreshing to see a government leader take a degree of responsibility for addressing the novel coronavirus. Still, parents’ concerns remain unaddressed.

Echoing global concerns raised by the WASH program, parents in the Toronto District called for touch-less hand washing stations in classrooms and upgrades to ventilation systems. Their school boards told them they had no provincial funding for either.

The government is requiring children from grades four to twelve to wear masks. That’s okay as far as it goes, but we all know that social distancing means smaller class sizes. 

Premier Ford’s Bizarre Arithmetic

 Instead, Premier Ford’s bizarre explanation went like this. “First of all, in kindergarten, we have capped at 30 students, and that’s with an early childhood educator and a teacher, and that’s the lowest in the country. Other provinces might have it capped at 20, but they have one teacher.”

If we were arguing about the quality of education, this would be a robust rationale. The kids have two adults in the room to work with them–one educator to only fifteen students.

Yet, from a social distancing point of view, the Premier’s arithmetic makes no sense. Other provinces will have twenty-one people in one classroom while Ontario will have thirty-two.

“More Investment in Keeping Kids and Teachers Safe”

 University of Toronto (UofT) epidemiologist David Fisman responded to the plan saying, “I would have liked to see more investment in keeping kids and teachers safe through the use of modified school days, outdoor activities, small class sizes, and use of non-crowded spaces that are not in use due to other activities having gone online.”

Dr. Isaac Boguch specializes in infectious diseases also at UofT. He explained, “There’s no right answer. We can talk about lower class sizes, we can talk about masks, we can talk about dumping in money, we can talk about policies, but none of it is going to eliminate the risk.”

That’s not terribly reassuring, and neither is the Premier’s summary of the plan. He concluded by saying, “Let’s give this a shot, at least. We’re going to give it everything we can, and make sure that we move forward and pray to God that everyone’s safe.”

 Hoping to Goodness Is Not a Strategy

 Hoping to goodness is not a strategy. We still have seventeen days before students are slated to go back to school in Ontario. A lot of other children around the world start classes around the same time.

Society’s most important role is to provide for and protect our children. Between now and then, let’s encourage our school boards and political leaders to find better answers. Would it be the end of the world if figuring out how to safely get back to school took a few more weeks? Shouldn’t we try to glean how to get it right the first time?

We always have more to learn if we dare to know.
Learn more:
2 in 5 schools around the world lacked basic handwashing facilities prior to COVID-19 pandemic — UNICEF, WHO
Progress on drinking-water, sanitation and hygiene in schools
Doug Ford is selling his back-to-school plan with all the reassurance of a bear driving a garbage truck. It’s not great
Human Rights Call to Action from UN Chief
COVID-19 Human Rights Issues Come to Light
Infodemic: “Dangerous Outbreak of Misinformation”

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