Open elementary schools for in-person learning
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We are parents/carers of elementary aged students. We are writing on behalf of our children and the many other children, for whom in-person school is essential.
We are deeply concerned about news reports of plans to extend the closure of elementary schools. Calls for blanket closures - such as the letter from Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario to Local Medical Officers of Health - are based on fear not fact. We are strongly opposed to universal closures of schools: this is a form of “intervention theatre” that is not based on evidence.
We respectfully request that you continue with the plan for elementary students to return to in-person learning on Monday, January 11th as planned. We also request that any further closures be targeted: that is, that closures be limited to individual schools with outbreaks and in areas experiencing unsafe levels of community spread - as informed by epidemiology (de-segregated by age and sub-region/neighbourhood) and the expertise of the local Medical Officers of Health. We also request that the Government provide job protection and additional financial and psycho-social supports to students and families whose school is closed due to COVID-19.
The reasons behind our request are explained in detail below. Reasons include:
- Not all of Ontario has high transmission of COVID-19. There are even significant differences in rates of spread among neighbourhoods within regions experiencing the highest levels of transmission.
- Schools are not driving transmission of the virus.
- Public health has obligations to protect and promote children’s health beyond COVID-19, including healthy growth and development, mental health, and life promotion.
- School closures hurt children and their families. The impacts of these harms will reverberate across this generation of children’s lifetime.
- School closures are intensifying educational inequities and cut the most vulnerable children off from essential supports.
- Ongoing forced virtual learning increases the risk of COVID exposure.
- Forced virtual learning is impacting the economy, the health system, and women’s rights.
Finally, we would like to thank everyone who has been for working tirelessly to keep our children and their schools safe. We have seen over the Fall how the collection of precautions put in place have worked to keep COVID out of our schools, and to quickly respond when the virus does make its way into a school. We agree with assertions by Minister Lecce that our schools are the safest place for children to be during this pandemic.
The Parents of the Opening Schools and Daycares Safely Support Group
Not all of Ontario has high transmission. There are even significant differences in rates of spread among neighbourhoods within regions experiencing the highest levels of transmission.
For example, KFL&A Public Health reported 5 new cases on January 6 2021, in a region serving approximately 200,000 people; for a total of 50 active cases, 0 in ICU, 1 in hospital. Extrapolating these numbers to Toronto, this would correspond to 95 cases in the city of 3.78 million. Clearly, transmission is not the same everywhere in the province, and thus the risk is not universal in the province. A one-size fits all approach for the province completely disregards the regions’ differences.
Schools are not driving transmission of the virus.
Closing schools gives the impression that the government is taking action by sacrificing a population without political power, but does not target the drivers of infections. Even in Peel Region, the Medical Officer of Health Region has indicated that cases within schools are a reflection of community transmission rather than a driver of transmission.
Schools have been closed since December 18th, yet cases continue to rise. Adults in the community – not children in schools – are driving the rise in cases. Interventions at this point should focus on reducing risk behaviours among adults, such as a curfew and enforcement of existing orders. Clearly, begging people to stay home and not gather with others is not working: Too many people are not motivated to change their behaviour and make difficult choices based on the risks to their health or the health system.
Public health has obligations to protect and promote children’s health beyond COVID-19
The Ontario Public Health Standards set out minimum requirements for health units to support healthy growth and development, promote mental health, and prevent substance use and suicide. It is critical that the goal of reducing the spread of COVID-19 in the community is balanced against the harms that school closures are causing to achieving requirements concerning the health and well-being of children and adolescents.
School closures hurt children and their families. The impacts of these harms will reverberate across this generation of children’s lifetime.
To be warranted, the benefits of closing schools within the COVID response must far outweigh the extreme harms to children – today and across their lifetime – and their families. There is a growing body of evidence illustrating that school closures have been shown are harmful to the well-being of children and their families.
School closures cut children off from critical protective factors, including relationships with caring adults and peers, a predictable routine, and meaningful activities. Imposed virtual learning is intensifying stress for parents and children are stressed out, leading to increased family conflict. It is no wonder that we have seen a rapid increase in mental health problems among children and adolescents.
Children have gone through a collective trauma with the initial school closure and ongoing isolation. There has also been an increase in exposure to adverse childhood events (ACEs) with the rise in family conflict and violence, parental mental health problems, and parental substance use. The rise in ACEs – combined with the lack of collective intervention – is undoubtedly also contributing to the rise of mental health problems in children, and will also have significant impacts for physical and mental health over their lifetimes.
School closures intensify educational inequities and cut the most vulnerable children off from essential supports
While our publicly-funded school system is known to level many inequities in society, the move to virtual learning disproportionately disadvantages children who already face barriers which will widening social inequities for generations to come.
Forced virtual learning is also creating new educational inequities. It does not work for many children with special needs as well as children who do not have an adult available to support their participation.
Schools are also a place where children access services such as food programs, therapies, and other supports. Schools are often a place of safety for children experiencing abuse or neglect at home, as well as those whose families are struggling to accept their sexual or gender identity.
Forced virtual learning is eroding children’s education
Education is one of children’s fundamental human rights. The closure of schools has intensified educational inequities and learning deficits. Young children do not have the literacy and computer skills to do virtual learning, nor the self-regulation to participate in online learning for hours each day.
Many children are not participating in virtual learning: some because their parents work outside of the home and are unable to support them, others because their parents have given up to reduce stress and conflict. Even the children of education workers are not getting the supervision and support they need to (a) be safe at home and (b) participate in virtual learning, because their parent(s) are occupied with leading synchronous classes.
Ongoing forced virtual learning increases the risk of COVID exposure
School closures mean that many families have to find alternative care for their children. Not all employees have the option of working at home – including essential workers such as healthcare workers, first responders, and grocery store workers – and others have employers who are increasingly less willing to accommodate child-related absences. This means that the social network for each classroom cohort will exponentially increase in size, which increases the chances of COVID-19 cases among children.
Furthermore, any families that were going to travel and gather during the winter holidays, will continue to do so while schools are closed. In fact, they may be even more likely to do so given the additional stressors while additional families may also be pushed towards riskier choices.
Forced virtual learning is impacting the economy, the health system, and women’s rights
Many working Ontarians have children in school. Parents cannot return to work without knowing that their children are safe; this is especially true of parents with children who are too young to stay at home alone. Many parents – particularly women – will be forced out of the labour market to provide childcare. This will not only set back gains in gender equality, but will also impact our health system’s ability to respond to COVID, the school system’s ability to provide education, and the province’s economic recovery and poverty levels.
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