Back to school, not back to normal

Former 'Minister of Handwashing' reflects on how the return to class has changed for parents, students and educators

Carolyn Bennett logoI loved the first day of school: a little nervous, the perfunctory picture taken in our back yard, new notebooks and pencils, a feeling of pride finally entering that next grade up.

This year is different.

Everyone is nervous. The parents, the grandparents, the principals, the teachers, the school trustees are all making decisions never made before about how to keep the students and their families safe and healthy — physically and mentally.  They know the decisions need to be based upon the best available evidence. They recognize families are struggling with the big decision of whether to send their children back to school or keep them home. That decision has been made more difficult by the varying advice and the varying interpretation and execution of the advice.

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It is clear that physical distancing is extraordinarily important. The Public Health Agency of Canada has issued COVID-19 guidance for schools from kindergarten to Grade 12.

They have been clear that in the hierarchy of controls, “Risk mitigation measures that are the most protective involve physically separating people from each other through physical distancing and physical barriers.”

As the former “Minister of Handwashing,” I know other measures, such as respiratory etiquette, hand hygiene and non-medical masks, are also important. As a physician, I know we must be able to ensure that children with symptoms of illness are not allowed to come to school.

Space, staff and money needed

It is not possible to achieve physical distancing without more space, more teachers and more money.

In my conversations with school trustees Shelley Laskin and Norm Di Pasquale since the spring, I have been so impressed with their attention to detail, their need to address all aspects of a safe return to school and their concern about being able to achieve physical distancing.

MPs have tried to deal with COVID-19 in ways that respect but are not undermined by constitutional responsibilities. Health care, long-term care and education are provincial responsibilities. I believe the health of Canadians is a shared responsibility. It was shocking to learn what the Canadian Forces saw as they went to help out with the crisis in long-term care. Germs don’t respect borders, and the federal Government also plays a role in the social determinants of health — poverty, the environment, shelter and equity.

The Canada Emergency Response Benefit has helped families deal with the job losses and financial crises facing so many. Investments in the shelter system and child care centres have been important as we support our most vulnerable.

It was clear that even though education is 100-percent a provincial responsibility, the federal government would want to respond to the anxiety facing so many parents this September.  The Safe Return to Class Fund provides $2 billion to help with those extra costs of PPE, cleaning, ventilation and staffing, including teachers for schools across Canada.

We know the issue of physical distancing needs to be dealt with appropriately in order for parents and teachers to feel confident that everyone can stay safe and healthy as they return to school. We are all working towards a Safe September together.

As my youth council keeps reminding us: we are not asking to “get back to normal,” we need to build back better — socially, economically and environmentally.

At times like this, we can better understand the importance of supports for mental health. Going forward, I believe the stigma will be reduced as more and more of our friends and neighbours have felt it was OK to admit, “It’s been tough.” Going forward, we will also be better able to use technology to decrease the need to travel and reduce our carbon footprint.

Please share with me your ideas and suggestions for #BuildBackBetter. Stay safe. Stay connected. We’re in this together — while apart.


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Posted: Sep 11 2020 10:47 am
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