Ontario’s Back-to-School Plan Misses the Mark

August 5, 2021 Updated: August 5, 2021

Commentary

The good news is that Ontario students are heading back to school. After months of remote learning forced on students, it’s a welcome relief to hear that all students will attend in-person classes in the fall.

Unfortunately, the bad news is that masks will remain mandatory for all students and staff regardless of their vaccination status. Considering that the vast majority of eligible Ontarians have been vaccinated, it makes little sense to enforce rules that should really only apply to those who are unvaccinated.

As for the argument that students are at risk because children under the age of 12 are not yet eligible to be vaccinated, the reality is that children are far less susceptible to COVID-19 than anyone else. In fact, a recent large-scale study from the United Kingdom found that when children do contract COVID-19, their symptoms tend to be mild and brief in duration.

While the delta variant of COVID-19 is considerably more transmissible than earlier versions of this virus, the people most at risk from this virus continue to be unvaccinated adults. Thus, it makes no sense to continue requiring children to wear masks. They’re not at significant risk.

To make matters worse, the Ontario government will require schools to schedule high school students for no more than two classes per day. This means that students will once again be forced to take three-hour-long classes every day. Obviously, this is a suboptimal learning situation.

The province said it imposed this requirement because it wants schools to preserve the option to revert to tighter restrictions if that becomes necessary. However, with a province-wide vaccination rate of more than 80 percent, it’s highly unlikely that this will happen. Most experts say that the fourth wave is unlikely to be anywhere near as lethal as previous waves.

Even though vaccinated people are still able to contract and pass on COVID-19, they are far less likely to develop serious symptoms requiring hospitalization. Thus, since children rarely develop serious COVID-19 symptoms and vaccinated adults are largely protected as well, it’s highly unlikely that the health care system will be overwhelmed by COVID-19 cases this fall. This means that there’s no need to continue imposing onerous restrictions on students and their teachers.

Over the last 16 months, students have sacrificed enough of their learning. The last thing students need is yet another year of wearing masks, absurdly long classes, and artificial distancing measures. It’s time to get things back to normal.

Ironically, it appears that the Ontario government recognizes this fact, even though it won’t admit it. The province’s back-to-school plan allows all extracurricular activities to resume, permits students from different cohorts to intermingle during recess breaks, and even lets music classes take place in school buildings. Whether the government wants to admit it or not, these allowances largely nullify the fiction that students are going to be kept apart from each other throughout the school day. Simply put, the restrictions in the government’s back-to-school plan are more symbolic than anything else.

The same is true of the enhanced cleaning protocols that will continue in the fall. If there’s one thing we know by now, it’s that COVID-19 is airborne and that surface transmission plays only a minor role in spreading the virus. Sanitizing doorknobs and wiping down desks throughout the day creates the impression of doing something but is little more than hygiene theatre.

It would be far better and more intellectually honest if the Ontario government simply copied the Saskatchewan government’s back-to-school plan. Saskatchewan’s plan states “COVID-19 restrictions will no longer be in place and the 2021-22 school year will proceed as during pre-pandemic years. … Schools will not be required to have masking, physical distancing or other COVID-19 restrictions used in the 2020-21 school year.”

Ontario’s back-to-school plan won’t do much to stop the transmission of COVID-19, but it will make students’ lives miserable and deprive them of an additional year of normal learning. Instead of using restrictive measures, the Ontario government should announce that the time has come for everyone to take responsibility for their personal health decisions.

There’s no such thing as a risk-free learning environment. Taking risks is an inherent part of life. Students deserve a normal school year. It’s time for governments to put students first and provide them with the quality education they deserve.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Michael Zwaagstra
Michael Zwaagstra
Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher, a senior fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, and author of “A Sage on the Stage: Common Sense Reflections on Teaching and Learning.”