COVID-19 comes with a host of contradictions. Currently in Manitoba, movie theatres are capped at a 30% capacity, so the people sitting and watching a two hour movie are safe. However, despite the fact that the number of active COVID-19 cases have now surpassed the previous peak that necessitated school closures, there have been no changes to classroom capacity. Picture two dozen or more students sitting in a classroom for 6 hours a day, five days a week. With this in mind, I question whether our government has done enough to protect students as they send them back to the classroom.
In the Manitoba school reopening plan, the government has recommended that students stay two metres apart. I teach middle school and this will not be possible in my classroom given the size of the room and the number of students. I am not entirely sure that I can keep them separated by one metre either, which is what Dr. Roussin recommends if two metres is not possible. Student cohorts is the next line of defense. However, this seems more oriented towards easing the process of contract tracing, and less about protecting individual students. Relying on cohorts will be cold comfort for families who become infected because their child was unable to effectively physically distance at school.
Recent studies have shown that children ten years and older transmit the virus at similar rates to adults. However, we are gearing up to send students back into poorly ventilated buildings where they will be in close proximity with each other for extended periods of time.
At a recent press conference, Cameron Friesen, Manitoba’s minister of health, has pointed out that there are risks to not reopening schools. This is true. Many students suffered during school closures due to the removal of the support systems schools provide. However, Friesen is also framing the problem as a black and white issue: Complete school closure versus the proposed reopening plan. The provincial government has sidestepped acknowledging the many measures that could be taken to better protect students and staff. Smaller class sizes, extensive funding for PPE and other protective equipment, more funding for daily cleaning of schools and investing in better ventilation systems would all help make schools safer.
These changes cost money. However, if schools close down due to outbreaks, the economy will take a hit as parents are forced to stay home. If schools open unsafely, this could lead to larger outbreaks in the wider community. Nobody wants to return to a full lockdown and it makes sense to invest in schools to avoid this eventuality.
More importantly, we have an ethical obligation to our children. We are talking about sending students to school in an environment where they cannot meet the public health guidelines that are recommended for any other public place. They will be returning to cramped classrooms where they will likely sit in one spot for lengthy periods, while being pressured to stay apart. All this with the threat of getting sick or bringing sickness home to their families. This is reprehensible, particularly when we have not explored other avenues to ensure safety.
Premier Brian Pallister has advised teachers not to let fear be our master. Casting teachers as fearful is the peak of condescension, when in reality we have very real concerns about the safety of ourselves and our students. The province has placed on teachers’ backs the burden of keeping our students safe, physically distanced, engaged, and learning, all without giving us the tools or funding to make this possible. Provincial officials expect there to be cases in schools this year, citing the refrain that we need to learn to live with the virus. However, this reality does not preclude the measures that could be put in place to protect our students and staff, as well as their families. When the stakes for students, their families, and the wider community are life and death, I think we can do better.