Safety in reopening schools during COVID-19

The Irish government recently announced a plan that commits almost 400 million euros to the safe reopening of schools. Some details of the plan include funds going towards hand sanitizing stations, signage, and converting large spaces into classrooms. While these steps are great, some glaring flaws of the plan include primary students not being required to socially distance and deeming face masks as non-essential. I’m very critical of masks and socially distancing not being enforced as these have been some of the most effective ways in lessening transmission[1]. It’s been well reported that droplet spread is the main mode of human-to-human transmission and I worry that with young children especially, it will be fairly easy for the virus to spread.

Another criticism I had of the plan was the lack of a clear response in what will be done if the virus begins to spread around students. Some news articles stated that there are plans to hire more teachers and support staff in mass amounts but there was also recognition of how difficult it may be to do so. The reopening of schools is going to be a risky journey but for Ireland and Canada, the governments have been left with no choice.

The Irish Government is ahead of Ontario, Canada (where I live) in that they at least now have a plan. The Ontario government has yet to formulate an adequate response to how schools will be operating in September. My current understanding is that schools will be opening according to a normal schedule and there is no news of a substantial increase in funding for COVID-19 preventative measures.

This is a very scary reality for parents and teachers as students will be heading back into school with little to no protection against transmission. I believe that this is a concern for many countries; establishing a comprehensive plan is a very difficult task as this situation is unprecedented for many. This is a task that cannot be taken lightly as the lives of so many are being put at risk. And for families who cannot afford to facilitate remote learning, they will be the most vulnerable to contract the virus.

I hope that my past two blog entries (here and here) were able to demonstrate that marginalized communities will be affected most by the pandemic and therefore, the first ones to risk getting sick. Marginalized populations such as migrants typically enter new countries with little to no financial resources which creates barriers to accessing things like health care and protective equipment. And because of the financial situation that they’re in, it’s essential for them to work to support themselves and their families; however that means accepting minimum wage jobs which run the highest risk of contact with COVID. This also means having to send their children to school because they cannot afford to stay home with them. I hope that I’m able to illustrate how these issues interact with each other and that the solution does not fall on the responsibility of the individual, but on our structural framework. If we had universal basic income that was available to all no matter their status, migrant families would not have to worry about risking their lives in order to have their basic needs met.

Another concern that I have about the reopening of school is how sustainable the new measures will be. How long will students be able to maintain social distancing? Do the Irish and Canadian governments expect the amount that they’ve committed to schools now to last over the duration of the next year? I expect that these numbers will exponentially have to increase to match the demand. And if the governments are not able to increase funding, who is going to take on that financial burden? Will it fall on teachers or parents? What about when transmission amongst students and teachers becomes rampant? Will schools shift to being completely remote again? There are just so many concerning variables and I believe that both Ireland and Canada are taking the wrong approach to formulating their response plans. There should be more collaboration between political leaders, teachers, and parents. Plans should be made according to the concerns of those who will have to endure the result firsthand.

Any notion of normalcy that we had before the pandemic began is now long gone. As societies transition into reopening different sectors, there are massive considerations to take into account. And again, I want to emphasize the importance of using an intersectional lens whilst devising solutions because not doing so has led to the current state in which minority groups are disenfranchised. It’s critical that we recognize which groups are being affected the most because I believe that will aid in slowing transmission. Considerations for racialized, disabled, poor folk, and seniors need to be centred in these plans because they will otherwise be neglected the most.

This is the third part of Nadia Hansen’s Forward with Feasta blog.

Endnote

1. Sunjaya, AP, Jenkins, C. “Rationale for universal face masks in public against COVID‐19”. Respirology. 2020; 25: 678– 679

Featured image: https://www.freeimages.com/photo/school-desks-1418686

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