Safely Reopening Schools Doesn’t Mean Zero Risk

July 24, 2020 Updated: July 29, 2020


September is fast approaching, and provincial governments are beginning to announce their school reopening plans. Based on what has been said so far, it appears likely that most students across the country will be back in class this fall.

Alberta’s education minister recently announced the most aggressive reopening plan. Students will be back in school on a full-time basis with limited distancing rules in place. No masks will be required for either students or teachers. Things won’t be completely back to normal, but Minister Adriana LaGrange has made it clear that she wants all students back in class at the beginning of September.

In contrast, Ontario education minister Stephen Lecce initially announced that his government planned to implement a hybrid approach, where students attend school approximately half the time and learn remotely the other half. However, Lecce changed his tune recently and now says the government is working on a plan to get all students back to school on a full-time basis.

On July 24, British Columbia Education Minister Rob Fleming said that most students from kindergarten to Grade 12 will be returning to school full time.

Hopefully other provinces follow suit.

For students from disadvantaged backgrounds, school is a safe place, and often it is where they receive nutritious meals that they rarely get at home. Also, students get vaccinated at school, develop valuable relationships with their teachers, interact with their classmates, and, most importantly, learn important academic skills. As such, keeping kids at home in the fall would further damage their mental, physical, and social well-being.

Obviously, COVID-19 is still around and it won’t be going away anytime soon. An effective vaccine is still many months, and possibly years, away. In the meantime, all Canadians need to learn to live with this virus. Reopening schools is an important step in achieving this objective.

The good news is that most of the epidemiological evidence indicates that children are much less likely than adults to contract COVID-19. And children who contract the virus rarely develop serious symptoms. In fact, only one person in Canada under the age of 20 has died from this virus. While the death of one child is always one too many, it is unrealistic to expect that the risk level must be brought down to zero before schools can safely reopen. The risk will never be zero and children need to learn this important lesson.

All Canadians need to recognize that staying safe does not mean zero risk. Everything we do in life involves at least some level of risk. Rather, staying safe means keeping risk at a manageable level. In the context of COVID-19, it means ensuring that our health care system is not overburdened with too many serious cases at any one time. This is, in fact, what flattening the curve means.

Based on the evidence we have at this time, it is reasonable to conclude that, for K-12 students, the risk from COVID-19 will be very low. Hence, schools should reopen.

However, it is also important to factor in the safety of the adults who work in the schools. Many teachers and other school staff members fall into higher risk categories and, of course, they need to do everything they can to avoid contracting this virus. School boards and administrators must come up with suitable arrangements for severely immuno-compromised teachers and support staff for whom COVID-19 is literally a life-and-death matter.

This is where teachers’ unions can play an important role. Since their responsibility is to represent their members, union leaders should make constructive recommendations for mitigating the risk from COVID-19. In particular, the unions should be forceful advocates for their members whose medical condition requires alternative work arrangements.

Unfortunately, it seems that many teachers’ unions seem more interested in throwing up unreasonable roadblocks to opening schools in the fall than in providing constructive suggestions to school boards. For example, the Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA) is demanding class sizes of 15 students or less, strictly enforced distancing measures in schools, more sick leave days for all teachers, more capital funding for schools to improve air circulation, and a robust fitness-for-school assessment regimen for teachers and students.

In other words, they want an ironclad guarantee that no teacher will contract COVID-19 while at work. That isn’t realistic.

Let’s be clear. If the Alberta government actually followed the ATA’s advice, schools would never reopen—not now and not in the future. That’s because it would cost hundreds of millions of dollars to hire extra teachers, not to mention all the other demands on the ATA’s wish list. Given the precipitous drop in revenue experienced by federal and provincial governments, massive additional spending on public education isn’t going to happen.

Predictably, other teachers’ unions have made similarly unreasonable demands. The Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation wants the Ontario government to substantially increase education funding to deal with COVID-19 precautions while the Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation insists on stronger distancing measures for teachers and students. Again, these demands will make it difficult, if not impossible, to reopen schools in September.

It would be far better if unions focused their efforts on identifying members who are at the highest risk from COVID-19 and then lobbying school boards to develop alternative work options for these teachers. Instead, teachers’ unions are demanding safety measures for everyone that are virtually impossible to implement by this fall.

Safe doesn’t mean zero risk. Life is a risky enterprise. This is an important lesson for both students and teachers to learn. Teachers must accept that there will always be a risk in coming to work, just like in all other professions. Schools need to reopen, and it is incumbent on teachers and their unions to ensure that this happens as smoothly as possible.

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

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