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Is it time to 'normalize' COVID-19 in Ontario schools? Parents are divided

·4 min read
Students at Toronto's Portage Trail Community School returned to class on Sept. 15, 2020. This fall, Dr. Barry Pakes says the province will be in a much better place to control the spread of COVID-19 thanks to vaccines. (Evan Mitsui/CBC - image credit)
Students at Toronto's Portage Trail Community School returned to class on Sept. 15, 2020. This fall, Dr. Barry Pakes says the province will be in a much better place to control the spread of COVID-19 thanks to vaccines. (Evan Mitsui/CBC - image credit)

When Ontario's top doctor said it's time to "normalize" COVID-19 in schools Tuesday, Bronwen Alsop says she almost fell off her chair.

The mother of two young kids and founder of the Ontario Families Coalition has advocated for in-class learning to be maintained throughout the pandemic, even if a moderate number of cases are reported in the community.

"To actually hear that we need to learn to live with this long-term was really quite wonderful," said Alsop, who is also an early childhood educator.

"Our students need an uninterrupted, normal school year for the entire year unless there is a severe, catastrophic outbreak."

Parents' and experts' reaction on social media to the province's plan to get kids back in class next month has been largely negative, with many saying it sets too low a bar for the upcoming school year. But.Alsop says remote learning has caused a lot of damage to students with special needs

EVAN MITSUI
EVAN MITSUI

Her four-year-son, who is deaf in one ear and hard of hearing in the other, lost out on precious speech and language development at a Toronto District School Board pre-school program because of the months-long closures, Alsop said.

"I get emotionally upset because of what he could have had but what he didn't because of the disaster that happened that really could've been avoided," she said.

No schools will close, says top doctor

Ontario's Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore made the comment at a news conference Tuesday, following the release of the province's official back-to-school strategy. Students will return to the classroom full-time in September with the option to do remote learning.

"I really can't envision or see any closure of any schools in Ontario, or colleges, or universities," Moore told reporters. "We have to normalize COVID-19 for our schools and have an approach that's prudent, that's cautious, but that realizes we're going to have a rise in cases."

Chris Young/The Canadian Press
Chris Young/The Canadian Press

He compared COVID-19 to the seasonal flu, where schools anticipate small outbreaks over the winter months with sometimes 10 to 15 per cent of students staying home sick.

"But they recover, they resolve and they're back in the classroom," Moore said.

Under Ontario's plan, teachers and students in Grade 1 and up must wear masks and to do self-screening before entering schools. The province won't be tracking students' vaccination status, but that data will be gathered if there's an outbreak that needs to be investigated.

Details about how schools will manage COVID cases and outbreaks is "forthcoming," according to a footnote in the 29-page document.

Parents still waiting for details

Kate Dupuis, a mother of a two-year-old in daycare and a six-year-old in Grade 1, was also floored by his statement, but not in a good way.

She thinks it's far too soon to take this approach, especially when the province hasn't yet released the requirements around testing and isolating and has made it clear vaccines won't be mandated for educators or students over 12 years old.

"I'm not sure how parents are expected to normalize accepting their children are going into a risky setting when the government has had over a year to prepare to make schools safer for kids," Dupuis said. "It doesn't make any sense to me as a parent at all."

One of the main problems of comparing the two viruses is that there is a vaccine available for all kids to protect against the flu, whereas there's no COVID vaccine for kids under 12, she said.

Plan is reasonable, says doctor

Until all kids can be vaccinated, Dupuis said she's looking for the province to reduce class sizes, speed up testing results, make rapid tests available to families and provide more paid sick days for parents so they don't feel compelled to minimize their kids' symptoms.

"Unless you have any of these in place, it's just not safe," she said. "And there still probably will be closures or at least a significant number of students will be sent home."

But Dr. Barry Pakes, a public health professor at the University of Toronto, said the province's plan is reasonable because Ontario is in "better shape" than last fall when the second wave forced thousands of school closures.

"This fall we can look forward to them being much safer because most of the surrounding community, if not the students themselves, are actually vaccinated," he said.

While the province's long-term direction is to normalize COVID-19, Pakes said this fall it will remain a front-and-centre concern in schools.

"We can't quite consider COVID a garden variety flu yet," he said.

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