The pressure to return Island children to the classroom is summed up in two words sprinkled liberally throughout reopening plans for each of PEI’s 56 English language schools. ‘When possible’ is the phrase government uses to bridge political and education rhetoric, knowing the goal is built on hope as much as science.
Everyone wants children back in the classroom.We know there will be cases of COVID.What we don’t want are outbreaks.The question is how much risk are we prepared to accept, and equally as important, what are we prepared to do to minimize it?
Despite our record of successfully controlling COVID, PEI is exposing children, teachers, support staff and broader community to significant risk by - for the first time - allowing provincially mandated social distancing requirements to be ignored.
September 8th our children become a social experiment.
Students are urged to follow social distancing guidelines ... when possible. So too are cohorts, groups of up to 50 students lumped together by grade, class, or location in a school ... when possible. Bus drop-off and pick-up will be staggered ... when possible.
Masks are mandatory on buses, but there is no efficient manner of enforcement since that job falls to the driver whose eyes must be on the road.Their use is ‘strongly recommended’ when social distancing is not possible in areas like hallways and cafeterias. But not mandatory.
When possible is great if everyone follows the rules, uses masks properly, and we avoid future COVID cases.This will not happen. So it becomes a matter of significant concern when government and the Public Schools Branch refuse to deal substantively with connected issues of class size, routinely ranging from 28 to 33, and school population.
The Public Schools Branch pegs functional capacity of Charlottetown Rural at 950.This fall 1,076 students will begin classes there. Rural is not alone. Many schools, especially in urban areas, are bursting at the seams, at or over their functional capacity.
We’re expecting a lot of young children and teenagers to follow the rules to the letter of the law.We’re asking the impossible of teachers, bus drivers and support staff to act as referee, cleaner and educator.
There are schools with student populations smaller than the building’s capacity. Can we temporarily transfer some students to minimize risk? Can we use public buildings, many of which have large areas of free space? (Ironically, government still allows many adult workers to work from home, while mandating children need to get back to class). The lack of imagination from the Public Schools Branch and Department of Education is exemplified by the most basic obstacle to social distancing - desks used by multiple students - are still in use.
Other provinces are delaying the start of the school year.They are throwing millions at minimizing risk.A growing number are mandating the use of masks.
PEI is adding a small number of mobile classrooms at select schools, but not adding significantly to the number of teachers, meaning large class sizes will still be the rule rather than exception. In a recent Globe and Mail column,Andre Picard, Canada’s leading health reporter, stated:‘Physical distancing is the single most important public health measure we have to protect ourselves against the novel coronavirus.To allow children to be two metres apart, there should be no more than 15 students assigned to a typically sized classroom.’
On this point, PEI is failing.
Dr Heather Morrison has done an incredible job navigating PEI’s COVID response. But the Chief Public Health Officer has been silent on a necessary increase in testing. If we simply wait for cases to occur in schools, we increase the risk of significant community spread. We need testing specifically in the school environment of teachers, students, substitutes, bus drivers, cafeteria workers and support staff.We need enhanced tracking.The federal government’s app is built on Bluetooth technology. It needs to be adopted. But we need to
add GPS capacity. It’s not an invasion of privacy. It’s a global health crisis.Ask Islanders to waive their right to privacy for this single, necessary infringement.
The angst of parents, students and teachers is rising. School plans, while the best effort of school administrators, do not do an adequate job minimizing risk.That’s where Minister Brad Trivers, the Public Schools Branch and Chief Public Health Officer must do more.
At a minimum the school year should be delayed. Let’s get teachers up to speed on the labyrinth of operational changes in a non-rushed manner.Let’s let them figure out how they will effectively do their job. Let’s consider bringing students in by grade or class for orientation days.And let’s look at more ways to minimize risk in the classrooms, hallways and busses across PEI.
Let’s put our thinking and imagination hats on.
Six months ago we said we are all in this together. Now is not the time to throw our teachers and students overboard.
Paul MacNeill is Publisher of Island Press Limited.He can be contacted at paul@peicanada. com