As Canadians breathe a COVID tempered sigh of relief that the calendar has finally turned to May…a great many educational minds are now turning to what that oh so familiar entity called “school” will look like in the fall. Because the start of May begins a count down, of sorts. A mere four months from now, Canadian schools will once again throw open their collective doors and welcome the graduating class of 2021. (Frostededucation, May 3, 2020.)
One of the most interesting things about being an op-ed writer is that one becomes, rather accidentally, a bit of a historian. And as the moment I was writing about back in May finally arrives, it is the historical significance of the thing that has me most intrigued.
The opening of public schools in the Fall of 2020 will undoubtedly be examined as no other opening ever has before. When future students learn about “The Great COVID Pandemic (2020-????)” they will read of how in the early days schools had to shutter their doors. They will then read about how provincial governments decided, in what seems to many to be a rather haphazard fashion, to reopen them.
One has to go back to such moments as the 1954 Brown V Board of Education, decision or perhaps the 1972 White Paper Indian Control of Indian Education to find events as potentially significant (educationally speaking) as this coming September. I say “potentially” on purpose here. Writing may allow me to lay claim to being an accidental historian, but does not afford me the gift of premonition. It could be that the re-opening of schools will be a mere footnote when the COVID story is told, and that is certainly what we are all hoping for.
It is the alternative to that scenario, however, that is causing me a certain level of anxiety around September. The fear that schools will become the epicenter of a new outbreak isn’t far from anyone’s mind these days. Some may see that as unwarranted, particularly since many entities like grocery stores have made it through COVID relatively unscathed. Schools, however, are a very different beast. September 8th in Nova Scotia will represent the largest public gathering, of any kind, in any location, since March; a public gathering made up almost entirely of our children.
So I believe we may all have a right to a “certain level of anxiety.”
The most maddening thing in all of this is that, here in Nova Scotia, our government seems quite content to simply allow the calendar pages to fall away and ignore call after call for them to modify their “Back to School” plan. I don’t suppose that their obstinance should come as a complete surprise. Even though McNeil is stepping aside, it seems that he has built a culture of dismissal within the party. Despite receiving thousands of e-mail and letters of complaint, despite hearing from parents and teachers alike, the Liberals are sticking to their talking points, going so far as to again shut down calls from the opposition for them to at least provide more information on the matter.
I am no medical expert, to be sure, and when I hear doctors saying that we should have faith in the back to school plan, I do need to acknowledge their obvious medical expertise. What I am, however, is a teacher, and one who has been hearing pretty much daily about practical problems of the plan. One rather novel example came to me a few days ago from a teacher who has been told students can not use the coat racks and shelves in the school hallways. That means that students must keep their things (jackets, snow suits, mittens) with them in class. However, the hanging of personal coats and such for teachers in their classroooms has, over the past few years, been deemed a fire hazard.
I wonder what the fire marshall will have to say when he walks into an elementary classroom jammed with snow boots and soggy ski pants?
This is getting pretty far into the minutiae of the thing, to be sure, but we are a little over a week away from the opening bell. Many questions still remain unanswered. Not just about the “big ticket” items like how safe immunocompromised individuals will be or how effective air circulation systems are, but about the day to day operations of the buildings themselves. That a simple question around basic fire safety had no satisfactory response, even though the government has had months to work on this, does little to reassure me about their capacity to keep schools safe from a global pandemic.
And it is not like there were no other options. They could have delayed the start of school, perhaps allowing for a full safety audit to be performed, as has been suggested by the NSTU. They could have operated at a reduced capacity for a few weeks to give everyone a chance to iron out the inevitable kinks. They could have started with their own Plan B, (Blended Learning Model) and worked towards a full opening. Yet in what has become a trade mark of this government, they seem content to move forward despite the cacophony of concerns.
Somewhat ironically, I recently find myself hearkening back to another bit of educational history recorded in these pages.
On December 5th, 2016, this Liberal government ordered that schools be shut down because of the NSTU’s proposed work-to-rule guidelines. According to lore, then Education Minister Karen Casey asked every superintendent in the province if they could guarantee student safety should teachers refuse to supervise students outside of their contractual obligations. The answer was apparently a fairly resounding “No”.
I wonder if our current Minister of Education were to ask the same question today about September’s re-opening, would the response be any different?
I am not suggesting that schools should not re-open. I am suggesting that it may be much more prudent to do so slowly and carefully, so that we can test the systems we have in place for keeping everyone safe, and make sure they work before we apply them to tens of thousands of our citizens en-masse.
It is true that COVID is not going anywhere. But of all the options on the table for reopening the public education system, I can’t for the life of me understand why we are starting with the one of highest risk.
Here’s hoping the decision made by this government allows September 8th to be nothing more than a historical footnote twenty years from now.