Schools across the country are preparing to welcome back students next month, though the circumstances will be anything but normal during the current pandemic. While schedules will be much different than in past years, class will soon be back in session.
In the coming days, many school boards are looking to confirm from families and guardians which children will be returning to the classroom and which will be opting out for remote learning. It can be a daunting decision for many people, especially when there’s so many aspects to consider: How do you know which is best for your child? What happens if you change your mind? What special considerations should you keep in mind when it comes to protocols, like wearing masks and physical distancing?
Consider the child’s health and stage of development
Judith Wiener is a professor emerita in the department of applied psychology and human development at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.
She says the first thing to be considered when deciding on whether to send children back to school is their age, their developmental stage and their health.
If there is an adolescent who’s focused on learning, is independent and adaptive to online classes, it’s a very different situation from someone who has difficulty focusing and needs the social environment.
“You’re balancing their needs for education,” she tells Yahoo Canada.
Many school districts are implementing a change to the curriculum, where students have fewer classes per day, several days a week, rather than the full week. This pared-down curriculum could in fact benefit those with learning disabilities.
“This may be very advantageous,” she says. “At least at the secondary level, I don’t think we’re compromising education, and for some special needs kids, this could be helpful.”
When it comes to physical health, a child with a compromised immune system will obviously be more at risk for contracting the virus and bringing it home. It’s also important to consider family members, like grandparents, who live at home who are at higher risk.
Consider the physical environment
Many schools are housed in older buildings with poor ventilation. While it’s reasonable to expect students to get outdoor time during the warmer months, considering this is Canada, that’s not a long-term solution. And there could be risk if schools get overcrowded.
When it comes to small children, a significant part of their learning involves play, so the notion of keeping them apart is unrealistic, according to Wiener.
“To put anywhere above 15 students in a classroom is unrealistic,” she says.
Consider everyone’s mental health
Dr. Marshall Korenblum with the University of Toronto’s department of psychiatry says mental health of both the children and parents and guardians need to be thoroughly considered.
Things like professional work load and support from family members need to be factored into whether sending a child back to school is the best decision.
“How are they managing?” he asks. “What is your stress level as a parent? If it’s high, then consider getting help, whether mental health help or child care help.”
Wiener adds that keeping children at home can also lead to stress-related risks like family violence, or children acting inappropriately out of boredom or lack of discipline. Students might also feel increased anxiety about catching the virus if they go to school.
“You’re looking at mental health problems either way you go when you have this awful situation,” she says.
Wiener suggests teaching young children the pandemic protocols like proper hand-washing and wearing a mask as soon as possible, rather than have it taught in the classroom. She says this could be more compelling if you find a mask the child thinks is cool.
Consider your community
Korenblum says this is the one factor that overrides all others when considering sending children back to school: what are the COVID-19 rates in your community?
“If you’re surrounded by COVID, schools aren’t in a bubble,” he says. “So the chances of your kid getting sick is highly dependent on what’s going on in the community. If it’s high, the likelihood is it’s in the school since it’s a microcosm, just a part of the community.”
It’s okay to change your mind
Isaac Bogoch is an infectious diseases physician and scientist in Toronto. He says people should feel okay if they decide to pull their children out of school if circumstances change.
“Things can change and people might not be comfortable because of an outbreak or an increase of cases or learning something new about the disease,” he says. “These aren’t static decisions, this is clearly a dynamic situation and the decisions can be dynamic as well. They can change their minds over time.”