Officials in Canada shut schools down in March. With that measure and others, and relative unity among political leaders, the country has fared far better against covid-19 than the United States. Cases per capita in Canada are less than a fifth those of the United States; deaths are less than half.
But for families, the school restart has been difficult, with relief about a tentative return to normal tempered by uncertainty about whether new safety measures will work.
“We’re venturing into the unknown,” said Anna Banerji, a pediatric infectious-disease specialist at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health. “We really don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Students in Quebec, the province hit hardest by the coronavirus, began returning for the new school year in late August. Positive cases have since been identified in several schools. The rest of the country will be back within weeks.
The federal government has issued broad guidance on reopening schools, but provinces and territories have jurisdiction over education within their borders, and some decisions are left to local school boards. This has led to a patchwork of plans differing on everything from mask-wearing to class sizes to protocols in the event of an outbreak.
Parents in Quebec have challenged the requirement that students return to school in court, arguing it deprives them of their right to make decisions related to the health and safety of their children. The government says there aren’t enough teachers to manage both in-person and remote learning, a voluntary reopening in May was successful, safeguards are in place to protect students’ health, and keeping kids at home is more dangerous than sending them to school.
Parents in British Columbia have also filed a legal challenge. Ontario’s four main education unions have lodged complaints with the provincial labor board.
Some school boards have pushed back their reopening dates or are under pressure to do so. Days before the first day of school in Ontario, some teachers were still waiting to learn what grade or subject they’d be teaching.
Vickita Bhatt usually teaches seventh grade in a Toronto suburb. A self-described “planner,” she learned less than one week before the start of school that she’d spend the year teaching French and music to at least three classes of sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders.
“It has been very disorganized,” Banerji said. “They knew this was coming, so why is everyone scrambling at the last minute?”
During the last week of August, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his government would give $1.5 billion to provinces and territories to help with the reopening, citing the “level of anxiety and preoccupation” of parents across the country. Critics said the money was coming too late.
Theresa Tam, Canada’s top doctor, said parents should be prepared for some new cases.
“It is expected that we will get some cases in school because the chances of having a case will be reflective of what’s going on in your community,” she said. “The key is to spot those cases quickly, manage those small clusters and not let them spread.”
Public health officials and policymakers argue that reopening schools is key to restarting the economy, and the long-term consequences of keeping children home outweigh the risks of sending them to class.
Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children backed the reopening of schools in July. The hospital said “addressing structural deficiencies, such as large class sizes, small classrooms and poor ventilation must be part of any plan.”
Critics from British Columbia to Nova Scotia say officials aren’t doing enough to address these problems. They worry about what might happen as temperatures cool and people spend more time in close quarters indoors.
Teachers have shared images on social media of classrooms with desks pushed together. The Ontario Safety Advocacy for Education group posted a video in which teachers spoke of classrooms with upward of 30 students sitting “elbow to elbow.”
Unions representing teachers and staff have sparred with Ontario Premier Doug Ford over class sizes for weeks. Canada’s largest province has made the return to school voluntary; those who opt out can complete classes online. But that won’t necessarily reduce class sizes; some school boards say they have no choice but to combine reduced classes to qualify for provincial funding agreements.
Ford has dismissed union criticism as “playing politics” and said he’d rather listen to his medical experts “all day long” than a union leader “with a degree in English literature.” (Ontario’s top doctor has faced calls to resign, including from the head of a nurses union, over his response to the pandemic.)
“I’m scared for my students, and I’m scared for my colleagues and myself as well,” said Bhatt, a member of the provincial New Democratic Party’s executive. “We want to come back to school. We just want it to be safe.”
Trudeau said last month that he was undecided about whether he’d send his three children back to their school in Ontario. He told Global News that he and his wife, who has recovered from covid-19, had decided they would go back, but they would “keep watching closely to make sure that our kids are safe.”
In neighboring Quebec, once the epicenter of Canada’s coronavirus outbreak, elementary schools outside of Montreal reopened briefly in May without major problems. The return was voluntary, classes were capped at 15 students and strict social distancing rules were imposed.
Now, in-person attendance is mandatory and there’s no limit on class sizes in elementary schools. Children can qualify for distance learning if they have a doctor’s note, but the guidance for physicians is strict and recommends even most students with serious or chronic illnesses attend school. That includes some children with cancer, waiting for an organ transplant or on dialysis.
The other option is to withdraw children from the formal educational system and home-school them — an alternative that is not feasible for all families. Students can always reenter the system but could lose their spot in their schools.
The number of children home-schooled in Quebec jumped 39 percent from March 10 to Aug. 24, according to the provincial education ministry. A spokesman for the ministry said the government did not yet know how many students had been granted medical exemptions and were completing school remotely.
Noémi Berlus, the director of a Quebec association for home-based education, said the number of families in her group doubled from 850 last year to 1,701 this year. Some new members had long considered home schooling, she said, but others have children or family members with chronic illnesses, were unable to get a medical exemption and worried a return to school wouldn’t be safe.
Rachel, a Montreal mother, is one of them. She sought a doctor’s note that would exempt her 8-year-old son, who has been in remission from cancer for a short time. He suffered hearing loss and loss of kidney function from the treatment but was not given a note, so Rachel opted to home-school him.
“His body’s immune system is like that of a newborn baby,” said Rachel, who spoke on the condition that her last name be withheld to protect her son’s privacy. “I can’t put him in that environment and put his health at risk.”
Marie-helene Desmarais, another Montreal mother, said she and her husband decided in August that they would home-school their daughters, 6-year-old Madison and 14-year-old Audrey-Ann. Her husband has an underlying condition that would put him at risk from severe complications from covid-19, and she was worried about large class sizes. She would have preferred a distance learning option.
“I was so disappointed that I just said, ‘I’m going to do what’s best for my family,’ ” said Desmarais, who is self-employed. “It’s going to be an experience. We’re going to make the best of it.”
Lapaquette said the transition to online learning when schools shut down in March was a “little tough” initially. But she said her children, who have attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and disruptive mood dysregulation disorder, benefited in some ways. That also contributed to her decision to home-school them.
“It’s certainly taking some effort to get them into a routine,” said Lapaquette, who owns a consulting business. “I will admit my work has suffered this week.”
“So far, no complaints.”