School Should be as Normal as Possible this Fall

Commentary, Education, Michael Zwaagstra

On Aug.1, the provincial government will announce its back-to-school plan for the fall. It is likely that K-12 classes will be in-person rather than online.

Good thing too.

It’s one thing for university students to take courses online. All professors have to do is to record their lectures and put them online for students to watch at their convenience. But that is not what learning looks like for most K-12 students.

Most K-12 students learn best when they directly interact with their teachers and with their peers. Class discussions, science experiments, and collaborative projects are just a few things that are virtually impossible to replicate online. This is even more true with younger students.

Obviously, COVID-19 is still around. This isn’t a surprise to anyone paying attention to public health announcements. Physical distancing measures can slow the spread of the virus, but these measures will not eliminate it. We are at the stage now where we need to learn how to live with this virus on a long-term basis. Opening schools is one step in getting to that objective.

This leads to the question of whether we should have near-normal classes this fall where all students attend every day or whether it is better to go with a hybrid model where students attend in-person approximately 50% of the time while doing online learning for the remaining time.

Given these choices, near-normal is the way to go. Not only would a hybrid model be a logistical nightmare to coordinate and administer, it would not be an effective way to prevent the virus from spreading.

That’s because students, particularly those in high school, aren’t going to just sit at home doing online assignments. Rather, they will hang out in large groups at skateboard parks, shopping malls, and in private homes. Many of them will work more hours at their part-time jobs where they interact with the public.

In short, a hybrid model might lessen the COVID-19 transmission rate at school, but it’s unlikely to lessen the overall rate.

The most sensible approach is to send students back to school on a full-time basis with limited distancing measures in place. These limited measures should include eliminating school assemblies, restricting public attendance at school sporting events and concerts, and ensuring that students and teachers have easy access to hand sanitizer stations. Not only are these kinds of precautions relatively easy to implement, they would not affect student learning.

This would be much better than mandating strict physical distancing measures such as a rigid two-metre separation requirement, putting direction arrows in hallways, requiring everyone to wear masks for the whole school day, and capping class sizes at 15 students.

Measures such as these would be more symbolic than effective.

The reality is that students are going to come into contact with each other throughout the day, whether or not they are in school, and no matter what restrictions are put in place.

Near-normal classes are important because the government needs to prioritize student learning. The more artificial restrictions that are put in place, the more student learning will be stifled. That’s the last thing students need.

We’ve done a lot over the years to ensure that schools are a welcoming place for all students. Let’s not allow this pandemic to undo all that we have achieved.


Republished from The Winnipeg Sun.

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.