Before schools can re-open, we need to do our homework
A fiery debate has emerged among child health, infectious disease, education and parenting experts on Twitter and beyond on a safe return to school, sparked by the release of guidelines by The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto last week.
While some have been quick to criticize the evidence behind the recommendations, others have recognized the importance of using these guidelines as building blocks in this evolving conversation across the country.
When COVID-19 first hit and schools were shut down, little was known about this new virus – who was likely to be infected, by what means and what effect it would have. Because schools were rightly closed early and Canadians practiced physical distancing, there is little data about the transmission of the virus to, by and among children. What we do know is that keeping children out of school compromises their physical and mental health.
The time has come to get students back to school – safely. Schools play an important role in helping children remain healthy and well. In “lockdown,” children are missing out on critical social interactions with friends, classmates and teachers that are essential for healthy growth and development. Calls to crisis lines by children and young people have increased in direct relation to distress associated with the pandemic. Fewer cases are reported to protective services because teachers, coaches and others do not have eyes on children to notice abuse, neglect and misconduct. Children no longer have access to breakfast or lunch programs that provide sources of healthy foods.
This virus will be with us for some time to come yet we will need a path back to a new “normal” soon. Doing this will not be risk-free but we can take steps to reduce the risks. Many of Canada’s child health leaders strongly favour a return to school, acknowledging the concerns of families, teachers and other school personnel. Will a return to school put students and adults at risk? How do we support children with medical complexity or chronic health issues? Or siblings of these children?
There are no easy answers. What is clear is that leaders and frontline workers in health, education and social services must work with children and their parents to discuss their very real concerns and develop innovative, inclusive policies that keep everyone in mind. Solutions will need to be flexible in order to adapt to localized outbreaks, age and developmental needs and be guided by community-level evidence and international experience. A proactive approach will be important to minimize the psychosocial and health impacts of the school closures.
To support the successful re-entry to elementary and secondary schools, governments at all levels have a role to play. Ongoing research is critical to understand how this virus is evolving.
Additional funds will be required to retrofit physical school spaces to reduce the risk of COVID-19 on students and personnel. Teachers and others will need personal protective equipment that the education system will need to provide. Local testing and contact tracing will need to be stepped up to monitor the impact of the return to school on community spread of the virus. Families may need resources to help minimize the risk of transmitting the virus to others at home – especially if someone they live with is at greater risk such as grandma or vulnerable siblings. Changes in transportation may need to be considered to keep students and drivers safe. Virtual learning will need to be available and enhanced. An unimaginable challenge – many will say – but if healthcare can adapt and innovate virtually overnight, the education sector can rise to that challenge too.
Much like the guidelines developed by SickKids hospital, these are only some considerations to kickstart what must be many robust conversations to come throughout the summer and into the fall, embracing a diversity of experiences and expertise. We have much more homework still to do.