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There’s no ideal back-to-school plan forthcoming

In a normal year, the back-to-school promotions would be in high gear now, increasing again following the impending civic holiday long weekend.

It goes without saying that this is not a normal year.

The businesses that would be ramping up for September are still dealing with the realities of the COVID-19 situation and the regulations that came with stage 3 of the province’s reopening plan. More to the point, we still have no idea when schools will reopen and what going back to school will look like.

Ontario is past the worst of the coronavirus pandemic, and it wants to stay that way. Even with the lowered number of cases, there’s no way for school to resume as usual following Labour Day. While health officials are still getting a handle on how children, particularly those under the age of 10, could spread the virus, it’s clear that regular practices are not compatible with efforts to halt transmission.

Smaller class sizes, dividers, masks and personal protective equipment and enhanced remote learning are all part of the discussion about what schooling will look like after hiatus that began in mid-March. Sanitizers and the frequency of cleaning also factor into the equation. Perhaps the biggest hurdle will be keeping kids from breaching physical-distancing rules.

Children are considered less susceptible to the virus, and show fewer symptoms when infected. Still, officials will have to convince parents schools are safe before many will allow their children to return, even if some are eager to see a shift in the current care-giving routine.

Susceptible to sickness or not, children can spread the virus, with teachers and other staff the first point of contact. That reality immediately raises safety concerns. It also leads to questions about continuity should significant numbers of teachers become exposed to COVID-19, whether they’re symptomatic or not.

From there, the discussion naturally flows to cost, as the province may have to look at funding not only safety precautions but perhaps additional staff and related resources. It’s an easy bet that teachers’ unions, for instance, may not be on the same page as the government.

While reopening schools will be both difficult and expensive, there’s also a cost to keeping them closed, both in terms of the obvious parenting/day care expenses, but also in the physical and mental well-being of the children themselves.

Then there are the social inequities to consider. Not every child has equal access to home-schooling opportunities. From access to high-speed internet to the engagement of parents, every household is different. Remote learning was offered up in the spring, but uptake was fairly limited, and there were disparities based on household income, for instance.

Many students were and are unable to attend classes online. In fact, many students require face-to-face structures and supports, which are not always available at home. Households with higher incomes have better resources to give their children an advantage.

But even the best learn-from-home schooling can’t replace the social interactions that are a key part of going to school, particularly for younger students.

On the educational side, there are the one-on-one relationships with teachers that help children develop, and on which some students are more reliant than others. (That’s a component in identifying candidates for remote learning, for instance.) Socially, schools are where many young children develop relationships with their peers, learning how to work with others, how to trust and develop loyalty, for example.

In deciding when and how to reopen schools, the provincial government – the ultimate arbiter – will have to assess many moving parts, along with measuring the public mood for safety and risk. No decision will be spot-on.

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