With school likely to remain virtual for many students this year, focus should be on the fall: expert
TORONTO -- Another school year will be coming to an end in less than two months, but it’s unlikely that children currently attending remotely in Ontario will be back in classrooms before summer, experts say.
Students in Ontario have been attending classes virtually for more than a month, and provinces such as Manitoba and Alberta have announced recent shifts to remote learning as case numbers climb.
Some of these closures have planned end dates, but Dr. Anna Banerji, an infectious disease specialist, told CTV’s Your Morning on Tuesday that while the situation will vary region to region, hard-hit areas such as Ontario will probably remain virtual through the end of the school year.
“In hotspots, definitely where the rates are high, I think schools are not going to reopen,” she said.
When experts look at whether or not to reopen schools, they look at a number of factors, she explained.
“It’s based on the amount of community spread, the rates in the community, and the proportion of people now vaccinated,” she said.
“So right now, we’ve had huge amounts of spread in Alberta, Manitoba, Saskatchewan. Ontario has been levelling off and actually coming down, but we are only a few weeks away from being overwhelmed, and right now, in Alberta, there’s still the concern of the health-care system being overwhelmed, so that’s one factor.”
She said that it will depend on individual regions whether schools could open for the last few weeks of this term, but that she has “doubts” that such a thing will occur.
“They said for the longest time, children didn’t really get COVID,” she pointed out.
“Now we know that kids actually get it. Most kids get very mild illness or very little symptoms, but we’ve had over 1,000 kids in the hospital and 145 kids in the ICU, and 11 deaths. So you have to balance all of that together.”
The focus should be on preparing for the fall, she believes.
“I think we need to put our emphasis on trying to get kids back to school safely by the fall, and I think that means that we start planning for that now,” she said.
With so many disruptions to school throughout the year, there have been questions regarding whether kids will be prepared for their next school year.
Some U.S. states are considering holding students back a grade or allowing their parents to hold them back in order to make up for learning gaps due to COVID-19.
According to education strategist Dwayne Matthews, it’s not “necessary or recommended” to hold students back a grade in Canada. Instead, he believes, we should be looking at remote learning technologies that can help individual students who may be struggling.
“The future of education is really personalized, and boards and schools will have to take this opportunity to really think about how to strategically use these technologies and tools to personalize the learning, and that will give us the ability to fill gaps,” he told CTV’s Your Morning.
Holding students back by a grade could affect them socially, he pointed out.
If the aim is to have students ready for in-school learning again by fall, one tool to ensure safety is to start vaccinating children during the summer. Pfizer’s vaccine has been approved for those aged 12 and older, and studies are in progress with younger kids as well.
“That’s an opportunity now to make those plans during the summer so that we don’t [have] this opening and closing in schools once they start again,” Banerji said.
Although schools are thought to be largely safe when there isn’t a lot of community spread, schools have been at the centre of some outbreaks during the pandemic.
“It goes from the community into schools and from schools back into the community,” Banerji said, pointing out that teachers are more at risk than children.
“Hopefully teachers will be vaccinated by [the fall].”
If we begin vaccinating children during the summer, then when schools open in the fall they can be used to distribute the rest of the first doses or administer second doses of the vaccines, she suggested.
Banerji said the important thing is to try and avoid the back and forth between remote and in-school learning that has occurred throughout the pandemic.
“I think the hardest thing for a lot of families is the opening closing, opening closing, the uncertainty of what’s going to happen,” she said.
The goal is for those regions that are currently struggling with case counts to have schools open again in the fall — and for them to stay open.