What parents should consider before sending children back to school
TORONTO -- As children in Quebec head back to class following an extended layoff due to COVID-19, parents are left with a challenging dilemma: Do I send my child to class and risk infection, or do I keep them at home and risk them potentially falling behind?
Quebec’s decision to reopen classes on Monday has been a contentious one, with health experts and teachers’ associations indicating that it’s still too early, given Quebec has had nearly 40,000 cases of COVID-19 since the outbreak began, including more than 3,100 deaths.
Still, schools have taken preventative measures. In Montreal, where approximately half of the province's cases are located, classes remain closed. In other areas of the province, class sizes are limited to 15 students, extra desks have been taken out of classrooms to give more space for the children and teachers have been given personal protective equipment.
Attendance is expected to be low as well. The English-language Western Quebec School Board said about 14 per cent of its students would be returning to their classrooms this week, while other schools are reporting that as many as 50 per cent of the students will be back in class by the end of the week. For the students who are staying home during this time, online classes continue.
Given parents are not obligated to send their children back to school during this period, they must weigh the pros and cons of heading to class before making a decision.
CTV News has spoken to several medical and educational experts to outline the potential risks and benefits of sending a child back to school during the pandemic.
SHOULD MY CHILD GO BACK TO CLASS?
Depending on the expert, the opinion on whether to send a child back to school varies.
Infectious disease specialist Dr. Abdu Sharkawy believes it is still too soon for kids to return to class, but says for parents who rely on school so they can go to work, the decision is not so black and white.
“For some parents who must go to work and are very much up against the wall here in terms of having to care for their children at home, that may be a serious consideration to undertake,” he told CTV News.
“For other parents who are not necessarily pressed by this, I really question just how valuable this is for their children for a period of two or three weeks.”
Dr. Jim Kellner, a pediatrician and infectious disease specialist, on the other hand called it “perhaps reasonable” to open schools outside the Montreal-area, as cases are decreasing in other parts of Quebec.
Alyson Schafer, a family therapist and parenting expert, said parents will have to take into consideration their own home life before allowing their kids to return to class.
“Make your decision judiciously for your particular child and for your own home environment,” she said. “If you have family members that your child is coming back home from school that have diabetes or have high-risk or are immunosuppressed or any of these other things, it may not be the option for you.”
For some parents, the risk of their children catching the virus is too much.
“This feels like experimenting with our children to see whether or not herd immunity is going to work out,” Dawn Moore, a parent, told CTV News.
IS COVID-19 DANGEROUS FOR CHILDREN?
Kellner said research indicates that children generally tend experience milder symptoms associated with COVID-19. Where the real risk lies, he adds, is if a child catches the virus, then brings it home with them and spreads it to others.
“Children may be involved in the transmission much more than what we’ve thought to date,” he said. “Certainly it seems that children are just as likely to get an infection, although they may not be as likely to transmit it.”
Sharkawy said the possibility of a child spreading the virus to others and back to the child’s home is why he suggests schools should remain closed for the time being.
“They may be putting themselves in harm’s way, and may be bringing that virus back with them from school into the community,” he said. “For me this doesn’t make sense, the risk is certainly higher than the benefit.”
IS A CLASSROOM SETTING GOING TO IMPROVE MY CHILD’S LEARNING?
Depending on the expert, opinion varies about whether heading to class during times like these will be beneficial or detrimental to learning.
Heidi Yetman, president of the Quebec Provincial Association of Teachers, does not believe schools should be reopening and also questioned whether the protocols will make school enjoyable for the children.
“It’ll interesting to see how kids make out in this new reality and if they really feel like this is what they want to do every day – to spend most of their time in the same room at the same desk,” she told CTV News Channel. “We’ll see if it’s for the good of the children or not.”
Dwayne Matthews, an education strategist, said heading back to the classroom could indeed be beneficial to learning, given much of the curriculum is optimized for in-person learning.
“Most of the teachers have not been trained to give an online class,” he told CTV’s Your Morning. “While the boards and the schools are trying really, really hard get everybody up to speed, there’s thousands and thousands of teachers, some are comfortable, some are really not comfortable, so now they’re going through and trying to figure it all out.”
A new survey also suggests in-class learning could help the children. According to a recent survey from the Angus Reid Institute, 71 per cent of kids aged 10 to 17 said that “bored” is the emotion they’ve been feeling the most over the last few weeks and that 60 per cent of kids felt unmotivated by online learning arrangements used during the COVID-19 outbreak.
The same study also revealed the students have mixed reactions when it comes to heading back to class. Among the 650 respondents, 26 per cent said they would be happy about a return to school, 38 per cent said they would feel “ok” and 36 per cent responded that they are not looking forward to it.
WILL MY CHILDREN FALL BEHIND IF I CHOOSE TO KEEP THEM AT HOME?
Matthews said there’s no need to worry about children falling behind in class if a parent chooses to keep them at home while schools reopen.
He said given schools around the world are going through the same issues, class programs will be altered next fall to ensure everyone is brought back up to speed when classes resume.
“You’re going to be ready for school next year, remember a lot of the students across the planet have been pulled out of school,” he said. “Everybody’s going to have to do some extra review come September, so you’re going to be ready to move ahead.”
IS IT MORE APPROPRIATE TO SEND A FIVE YEAR OLD TO CLASS THAN A TEENAGER?
Kellner questioned the Quebec government’s decision to let younger children back to school, given how unlikely they are to remain vigilant when it comes to social distancing measures.
“There’s different challenges for different ages, but realistically, for five and six and seven year olds, how can you expect them to truly remain socially, physically distant for any period of time?” he said.
Many of the desks and chairs have been taken out of the classrooms to ensure the maximum of 15 students per class have space to remain socially distant. Libraries, cafeterias and gymnasiums have also been closed.
For some parents, getting their children comfortable with these changes is why they are sending them back to class.
“They’re going to learn these new norms that are going to be in place for some time, and to learn them in an environment where there’s less students, it might be a little less stressful,” Candy Champagne, whose children go to Howick Elementary School in Howick, Que.
Kellner said he could see a situation where young children follow the instructions for a few days due to the novelty of the situation, but then quickly revert to pre-pandemic behaviour.
“If we have to carry this out for the rest of the school year into next year, there’s going to be a logistical challenge to say: ‘Can we really maintain this degree of distancing?’”
Additionally, Kellner said it would be more appropriate to bring in the older students, as they are more likely to follow and understand the guidelines.
“It would be logical to think of trying to bring children who are the easiest to work with in terms of asking them to follow these instructions,” he said.
Dr. Dina Kulik, pediatrician and founder of the KidCrew Medical clinic in Toronto, went a step further and said that some kids might be better off staying at home if the parents know that maintaining social distancing will be a challenge.
“Some kids are better able to maintain that distance, when other children have difficulties with impulse control or there more emotionally driven or more sensitive kids, that might be more challenging for your child,” she told CTV News Channel on Monday.
WOULD SENDING MY CHILD TO SCHOOL AFFECT THEIR MENTAL HEALTH?
Despite the anxieties that come with the COVID-19 pandemic and returning to school following an extended break, Schafer believes heading back to class during these times could be beneficial for a student’s mental health.
She said even though many students are connecting with friends virtually, they can’t replace in-person social interactions.
“The reason that we’re so stressed by social isolation, is that we need those relationships, that is part of our mental health,” she said.
Schafer also said that a strong home environment is important for strong mental health and given that families have been stuck together for more than a month that some time apart may also help.
“The first and most important relationship that is going to be imperative for a child is their home relationship, and now that we’re all at home and there is no one else to interact with, that same intimate relationship that is good for our health becomes quite fractured,” she said.
Marie Fortin, whose twin seven-year-old daughters returned to Ecole St-Gerard in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu on Monday, told The Canadian Press that her daughters’ mental health was part of the consideration for sending them back to class, saying it’s "important for their routines."
With files from The Canadian Press