Reopening Schools was the Right Decision

Commentary, COVID-19, Education, Michael Zwaagstra

Think back to last August when Manitoba announced its back-to-school plan.

Critics argued the plan to reopen schools would put students and teachers at risk of catching COVID-19. Not surprisingly, opposition politicians denounced the plan.

Despite these criticisms, the province went ahead with reopening schools. Except for the first two weeks of January after the winter break, most schools have remained open since the beginning of September.

Now that we have completed more than half the school year, we can safely say that reopening schools in September was the right decision. So was the decision to keep most schools open when COVID-19 cases spiked in November and December.

Last spring, we learned that remote learning is a terrible substitute for in-person learning. Students are much more likely to learn when they are in the same room with their teachers. Of course, there is a place for remote learning, but only when it is done intentionally and voluntarily.

In addition, we now know a lot more about COVID-19 than we did a year ago. For the vast majority of students, COVID-19 is not a serious threat. It makes no sense to keep students at home when they are not at significant risk from the virus.

This is particularly true when we recognize that school closures are very harmful to students. Not only are schools essential to educating them, but they also provide vital social support for students. For many children, schools are the place where they receive emotional support from teachers, advice from counsellors, oversight from social workers, breakfasts, lunches and vaccinations. All of these things are essential.

Extended school closures deprive students of these supports and can lead to tragic consequences. Consider the situation in Las Vegas, where schools have been closed since mid-March 2020. In that year alone, twice as many Las Vegas students committed suicide than in previous years. This shocking statistic was enough to make school administrators change course and start opening the schools.

As of March 1, K-3 students in Las Vegas are back to in-person instruction two days a week, but students in the other grades remain at home. Imagine how disastrous things would have been in our province if our schools had remained closed for this length of time.

The tragic consequences in Las Vegas should serve as a warning to other jurisdictions in both Canada and the U.S. about the harm caused by extended school closures. It seems obvious that students experience more harm from extended school closures than from potential exposure to the COVID-19 virus.

Fortunately, schools across Manitoba have shown that they can operate safely. Distancing measures in the buildings have been reasonably successful at keeping students apart. That is why schools do not appear to have been major sources of COVID-19 transmission in Manitoba.

While social distancing makes the learning environment more artificial, it is better to have in-person classes with these measures in place than to sit at home working on computer screens. A socially distanced school day at least allows for some personal interaction between students and it enables teachers to work directly with students in regular classroom settings.

The province made the right decision when it reopened schools in September and it also made the right decision when it kept them open. Students belong in school.

 

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.

Photo by Jonathan Borba on Unsplash.