After months of establishing physical distancing measures, wearing mandatory face masks, and the overall “COVID panic” in Ontario, classes are resuming not only for post-secondary students but elementary and secondary school students as well. For some, this is relieving news as life before the pandemic can continue as well, and people can return to their typical routines. Yet, for many others, the reopening of schools is an anxious step toward the second wave of COVID-19.
Soon after the provincial gathering limit was increased to a maximum of 50 people indoors and 100 people outdoors for the majority of Ontario, COVID-19 cases began rising steadily. Then, 190 new cases were reported on Labour Day, along with 185 cases the following Tuesday, amounting to 375 new cases over two days. Moreover, students returning to classrooms increases the likelihood of cases continuing to rise in the coming weeks, and potentially sending the province back into lockdown.
The possibility of a second nationwide lockdown due to school reopenings concerns me greatly, as I’m sure it does many of you. I believe it is wrong to put school staff and students at risk. In fact, the hazard extends beyond those individuals and into their households and family life, where there may be immunocompromised individuals. This possibility is not far from reality, considering the developing outbreaks of COVID-19 in over 70 Québec schools, and possibly more as the province struggles to keep up with case reports.
Though it is essential to keep the context of these numbers in mind, larger numbers do tend to arise from smaller ones, like a domino effect. Despite the safety measures put in place, physical distancing challenges continue to emerge in classrooms. Additionally, safety concerns are more challenging when we look into the structure of buildings and ventilation, which is a severe problem in the majority of dated buildings.
Most university students are continuing their studies through online classes, which comes with its own set of pros and cons. Being a first-year student myself, I have come across some of my own challenges with navigating digital learning platforms and have experienced the overwhelming emotions that often come with the transition from high school to university.
That being said, if children were mandated only to take online classes, they would have their share of struggles as well. Most likely to a greater degree, given their young age and unfamiliarity with the concept of online learning. For example, Zoom fatigue, easier distractions, and the engagement barrier that online learning breeds are all challenges that children and their parents will have to deal with. Yet, while online learning for all students is not as effective as in-person learning, it is an important alternative that keeps in line with physical distancing measures and helps stem the spread of COVID-19 among children, their families, and the wider population.
I believe that by establishing stricter COVID-19 physical distancing practices, enforcing masks and sanitizing in schools, and providing dividers for students during lunchtime, Ontario will be able to eradicate the contraction of the virus quicker, and, as a result, the province will be able to resume in-person classes more easily and safely for all involved. Moreover, if COVID-19 cases continue to rise, students—be they elementary, secondary, or post-secondary—will have to continue adjusting and readjusting to new forms of learning if a firm and universal way of learning amid the pandemic is not established.
However, I recognize the complexity of this issue and the reality that arriving at a universally agreed-upon solution is impossible. So, the questions we all have to ask ourselves and our government are: What risks are worth taking right now? And what is being prioritized?