Turning Schools Into Prisons Doesn’t Make Sense

May 8, 2020 Updated: May 8, 2020


Quebec will be the first province to reopen schools as part of easing pandemic lockdown restrictions. Elementary students outside Montreal are going back on May 11, while students in Montreal area schools will return on May 25.

Of course, schools aren’t exactly going back to normal in Quebec. Class sizes will be capped at 15 students, desks will be scattered six feet apart, recesses will be tightly regulated, students will have no access to play structures, and there will be no group work or hands-on learning. Students will have no gym access and no art or music classes. All bathroom use will be carefully monitored by teachers.

In addition, no assignments will be graded so nothing that happens over the next two months is going to count on report cards. To summarize, there will be strict controls on the movement of students, tightly regulated recreational activities, and meaningless academic work for students who return to school.

Let’s be honest. Under these conditions, Quebec students aren’t going back to school, they are going to prison.

If you want to make school a truly unpleasant experience for students, implementing these harsh distancing requirements is the perfect way. Anyone who didn’t hate school before is going to hate it now. Forcing kids to sit in the same physically distanced desks all day long, restricting their bathroom breaks, and tightly controlling their movements on the playground, in the halls, and on school buses is not only unreasonable, it’s downright cruel.

One thing is certain. There won’t be much learning in this type of school environment. Students learn best in the context of strong student-teacher relationships, healthy interaction with their classmates, meaningful and interesting curriculum content, timely assessment of their work, and structured, but not rigid, classroom schedules. This will not happen in Quebec between now and the end of June.

In all probability, Quebec’s experiment with reopening schools earlier than other provinces will fail, but not because of COVID-19. The best scientific evidence we have suggests that children are at much less risk from this virus than adults and are less likely to spread it to other people as well. With an effective vaccine many months—and quite possibly years—away, departments of education must start planning for the reality that this virus may be around for a very long time.

Quebec’s experiment will fail because its reopening plan perpetuates the fiction that physical distancing in schools can look just like physical distancing in grocery stores or hair salons. It does not, and it cannot. Schools are not grocery stores, and students—no matter their ages—are not adults.

While current physical distancing rules make grocery shopping considerably less pleasant than before this pandemic hit, the rules don’t make it impossible. However, if the government told you that you could go to only one store, required you to buy the same items as everyone else, prevented you from touching anything in the store, and removed all tasty food from the shelves, that would be a better comparison to what Quebec students are going to experience in the coming weeks.

Given that the current school year will be completed in a few weeks, provinces must turn their focus to September. Unfortunately, some provinces are looking at strict physical distancing rules for the fall, like what Quebec is doing now. For example, Alberta’s education minister Adrianna LaGrange recently said that her department is considering having students attend on staggered days and mandating physical distancing within hallways and classrooms. This is not the right approach.

If schools are going to reopen, then they need to reopen as educational institutions and not as prisons. This means that students must be able to attend regular classes for the entire day and for five days a week. It also means that kids will undoubtedly come into contact with each other because that is what kids do—they push, they shove, they talk, and they rough-house with each other. Plus, when students go out for recess, they need unstructured play time, rather than being forced to walk around in a pre-arranged pattern keeping two metres apart or whatever other absurd notion administrators come up with to try and control them.

In short, school needs to be school again. Teachers must be able to teach and students must be able to learn in classrooms and with each other. This isn’t possible in Quebec schools right now. Rather than follow the Quebec model, it would be better for schools in other provinces to remain closed until September and then reopen as if it was a normal school year.

This doesn’t mean that schools shouldn’t take precautions in the fall. Schools can cancel extra-curricular activities and suspend large gatherings such as assemblies, concerts, and sporting events. It makes sense to restrict public access to school buildings during the school day and to require teachers and students to stay home when they are sick. These common sense regulations are far more feasible than staggering school days, spacing out desks, tightly monitoring recesses, and limiting bathroom breaks.

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, learning is still as important as ever. The last thing we need is to turn learning into a miserable experience for teachers and students. Schools are not prisons, nor should they be. Let’s get back to teaching and learning at the beginning of September.

Michael Zwaagstra is a public high school teacher 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.