I appreciated and enjoyed David Alston and Marcel Lebrun’s recent two-part series published by Huddle.today that proposed a framework for “the dance”, being the gradual re-opening of New Brunswick society after the lockdown. They began their discussion by praising the manner in which our provincial leaders have handled our response to Covid-19 to date. I wish to echo those comments and express my gratitude for all those who have worked so tirelessly over the last number of weeks for the benefit of all New Brunswickers.
Alston and Lebrun suggested that schools re-open in the first phase of easing restrictions on the lockdown. However, the government announced Friday that, while most other restrictions will be gradually removed over the coming weeks, schools won’t re-open until September at the earliest.
I am concerned that we are missing a big opportunity if we don’t re-open schools in the near term. This article is an opinion piece designed to generate further discussion on this issue.
Here are seven reasons why schools should re-open in New Brunswick on May 4:
- The risks appear to be very low for children. According to government statistics, as of April 27 we have 6 active Covid-19 cases, 112 people have recovered, and 3 people are hospitalized. No one has died from complications of the virus in the province, and no one is in intensive care. We have had no new cases for 8 days in a row, despite lots of testing going on (around 400 tests per day over the past week and 13,196 tests overall). We’ve been in lockdown for 6 weeks. The borders are closed off, and likely will be for a while. The curve has been planked. All of which begs the question: until borders re-open, where are the new cases going to come from? Even if we haven’t snuffed out the virus in NB, and the virus is still circulating, children under 19 get it in much smaller numbers than other demographics (see here) and don’t appear to be affected by it in the same way as adults. They mostly suffer little to no ill effects unless underlying medical conditions are present (see here and here). The tricky part of course is the potential for transmission by the kids to adults: parents, teachers, bus drivers, school staff, etc. (although in this article, an Australian epidemiologist declared “although primary school aged children can definitely catch it, it seems that they almost never pass the virus on to anybody else.”) So the return to school needs to be voluntary. Parents who are immunocompromised needn’t send their kids to school, and obviously kids who are would stay home as well. Similarly, teachers and others in the school system who are immunocompromised could stay home, with pay, and with no impact on their employment status. Kids who stay home would continue to access the online learning resources as they are currently. Yes, there will be some students who fall behind as a result. But that isn’t going to change by waiting until September or later. That will only ensure that all kids fall behind.
- Exposing kids to the virus could be a good thing…for all of us. As we look ahead to life with Covid-19, re-opening borders will eventually happen. What precautions will jurisdictions put in place to permit travellers in? One idea gaining prominence is immunity certificates or passports (see here) which would be available for anyone whose blood contains antibodies to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19. In other words, if this idea takes hold, those who have been exposed to the virus will be able to travel freely, and those who haven’t, won’t. Whatever the future looks like, it’s a good bet that having been exposed to Covid-19, and having recovered from any associated symptoms, will be beneficial. If we have non-high risk people exposed to it gradually, in a manner that doesn’t stress the health care system, that could be a net benefit for our society. Over time, a community immunity could develop if enough people get exposed to it, which could protect those at high-risk over the long term. Kids returning to schools now, when the virus may still be circulating, could be a good way to kickstart this community immunity response given kids are at lowest risk of being harmed by the virus. Quebec, the province with the most cases of Covid-19 in the country, is considering this approach. According to this report, Quebec’s public health director, Horacio Arruda, has said it is “very excessively rare” for children to develop severe symptoms from COVID-19 and that allowing them to catch the virus and become immunized would help the wider society “[b]ecause the more children will be, in my opinion, naturally immunized by the disease, the less they will become active vectors with older people.” To be sure, there isn’t consensus among doctors and scientists on the issue of community immunity (see here). Some favour the approach of continuing restrictions until a vaccine is developed. But we know that developing a vaccine for a coronavirus isn’t a sure thing and, best case, will take a long time to develop, test for safety and efficacy, and be available to the population. So if we are going to re-open schools at some point before a vaccine is ready, why wait? Why not do it now?
- Experts disagree on the benefits of school closures in combatting the virus. It would be one thing if we knew for sure that keeping schools closed was helpful in combatting this virus. But we don’t. There isn’t consensus among experts that keeping kids home is the right thing to do in the circumstances (see here and here). Quebec’s paediatrician’s association wrote in an open letter last week that “a gradual return to school isn’t just welcome, it’s necessary” (see here). That Covid-19 exposure in NB has been relatively rare compared to most other jurisdictions makes it even harder to justify ongoing, long term school closures.
- Physical distancing in schools isn’t going to work…ever. Maybe it could work in high schools. Maybe. But if you have kids below high school age, you know that despite all best efforts that parents, teachers, and school officials may attempt, kids aren’t going to maintain physical distancing in any consistent manner. It won’t be any different in September than it is now. Attempting to implement physical distancing in schools will be an exercise in frustration and futility, and worse, it will teach younger kids to be afraid of each other. At a raw and impressionable age, it could irreparably alter kids’ understanding of what it means to be social, and how to have healthy social interactions. What will be the long-term personal and societal impact of that?
- It’s an essential first step in re-opening the economy. If we are going to allow businesses to reopen gradually in the next 2-3 weeks, how will those businesses operate if the owners and employees have school aged children? Public school is child care for the vast majority of working parents in the province. And if the answer is for parents to find a day care or other child care centre for their kids so that they can return to work, meaning they are spending the day with dozens of other kids anyway, how is that different than sending kids to school?
- Closing the education gap. If schools stay open until June 26, re-opening on May 4 would give kids 8 weeks of school before summer. That’s a meaningful amount of time for kids to gain a lot of learning. If we wait another month and realize then that it would be a good idea to re-open schools, it will be too easy to say, well there’s only a few weeks left so what’s the point? Two months of learning will be lost. That’s 20% of the school year. Put another way, if we don’t re-open schools, kids will miss out on a full 40% of this school year. For a province that has historically treaded below average in national math and literacy testing, that’s a lot. Given our low Covid-19 cases compared to other parts of Canada and the developed world, this could be a huge opportunity to close some of that gap while schools remain closed in other jurisdictions.
- Kids need their friends…now. We’ve been locked down for 6 weeks. In many ways, it’s been great. Yes there have been numerous challenges both for those out of work and those still working who have been doing double and triple time. But, for parents in particular, a break from the chaos of school and lunches and evening sports and other activities has been welcomed. More time for meals and cards and games and movies and walks with the kids has been wonderful. And frankly, as a parent of four I could go for another few months of it. But it’s time for the kids to go back to school. You can see it over the past week. They need to get back into routines. They need in-person interaction with other adults (teachers). And, most of all, they need their friends. Socialization isn’t a luxury; it’s a fundamental human need that these kids have been deprived of for six weeks. Extend that another 8 weeks or longer and we will start to see some real regression. We’re already starting to see it. And judging by the number of reference and resource materials on psychological and emotional well-being sent out by the school district over the last number of weeks, this has been an issue since the start of this lockdown. Let’s get our kids back in school, where they belong.