Which province has the best back-to-school plan? Our experts hand out grades

After six months of long-haul messaging about keeping social circles small and limiting contact with other people to protect from COVID-19, school is in for September.

It’s causing more than a little anxiety, as parents, students and educators grapple with how to fit hands-on, often messy and always social classroom life into a newly sanitized world.

“The reason we’re doing all this other stuff like not attending large gatherings is because we want to be able to do the essential activities,” said Jason Ellis, a professor of education at the University of British Columbia who’s been monitoring the provinces’ back-to-school plans. “One thing that’s required is going back to school face-to-face.”

In-class learning is critical not only because most students get much better quality education from their teachers and with their peers than they would at home, but also because of the critical services many students get at school, like meal programs and learning to socialize.

That doesn’t mean returning to school is easy or carefree.

“People have been told this is the way you stay safe, we need to lower risk,” Ellis said. “But now they’re being asked to accept a higher risk activity of returning to school. So it’s very scary; it’s very difficult.”

So far, every province is committed to bringing schools back in September. But not all plans are created equal. We asked experts to help grade the plans, looking at COVID-19 protections, backup plans in the event of outbreaks, and how well each province has prepared students, teachers and parents for the mental health challenge of jumping into a riskier environment mid-pandemic.

Here are their back-to-school report cards.

The rubric:

A = Above and beyond what the province could have been expected to plan

B = Good planning given the knowledge/research available. Could improve on clarity/universality of plan

C = Passable planning in the time of a pandemic but needs work

D = A plan is in place, but it is the bare minimum of what could be expected

The expert panel:

Cynthia Carr is an epidemiologist and the head of EPI Research.

Cynthia Carr: An epidemiologist with 24 years of experience who runs the epidemiology research consultancy EPI Research Inc.

What she looks for in the plans: Handling of the “three Cs”: communication, circulation and crowding. In situations where air circulation is not ideal, such as in closed classrooms and buses with closed windows, how do the plans reduce risk? Carr also emphasizes clarity of plans and what the provinces have in place for another coronavirus outbreak.

Leanne De Souza-Kenney is a public health researcher at the University of Toronto.

Leanne De Souza-Kenney: De Souza-Kenney is a public health researcher and an assistant professor of health studies at the University of Toronto.

What she looks for in the plans: Public health literacy: are the plans setup to communicate with students of all grades about important, risk-reducing public health concepts? She also looks for specific plans on the creation of cohorts to facilitate contact tracing in an outbreak.

Christine Korol is a registered psychologist, director of the Vancouver Anxiety Centre and an adjunct professor in the Department of Psychology at UBC.

Christine Korol: Korol is a registered clinical psychologist and director of the Vancouver Anxiety Centre.

What she looks for in the plans: Students don’t learn when they’re anxious and teachers have a harder time doing their jobs, too. Do the plans use effective communication strategies to reduce anxiety and increase compliance with COVID-19 rules and best practices?

Jason Ellis: Ellis is an associate professor at the University of British Columbia Department of Education Studies. He is a non-grading commenter on these report cards.

British Columbia

Average: B-

British Columbia plans for studies to resume in “learning groups,” to include a maximum of 60 students for lower grades and 120 for high school students. School districts are to post final back-to-school details online by Aug. 26. The province is promoting physical distancing and handwashing, and making masks mandatory for middle and high school students in high traffic areas.

Carr: B

Carr likes that B.C.’s plan outlines steps that seem practical: acknowledging that physical distancing should be practised where possible, for example, but not promising to maintain distance in classrooms, which as Carr points out “aren’t getting any bigger.” When it comes to masks, she would be more interested in mask rules in places where students will be in proximity for long periods of time, like classrooms and buses, rather than high traffic areas like hallways.

De Souza-Kenney: C+

De Souza-Kenney likes that B.C. is planning ahead to separate students on buses and within classrooms. She also likes the creation of learning groups, but subtracted grades because the plan says student do not need to physically distance within them.

Korol: C

Korol looked at all the province’s plans through the lens of reducing anxiety. In her home province, she wants to see the rationale behind the learning pods more clearly explained. “People are confused by why they need a small bubble, but then it’s expanded for school,” Korol said. “The government needs to explain why school is important enough to risk infections.”

Alberta

Average: B+

The province plans to fully reopen schools from kindergarten to Grade 12. Safety measures will be tightened if an outbreak occurs, including reducing class sizes to 20.

Carr: B

Alberta’s adherence to cohorts is a good sign for Carr, mostly to facilitate contact tracing in the event of any exposure. While she likes that Alberta is thinking ahead about what to do if the province has an outbreak, she said she doesn’t understand why class sizes would be reduced only after an outbreak is detected.

De Souza-Kenney: B

De Souza-Kenney’s score reflects a good overall effort on physical distancing and mask wearing, but she has questions: How big can a cohort be? Is physical distancing still required within a cohort?

Korol: C

Korol raised a couple of red flags. One was the “when possible” language describing physical distancing, which creates uncertainty for teachers who are not infectious disease experts. “The no sharing policy guideline is concerning,” she said, “There should be some plan in place for kids living below the poverty line.”

Saskatchewan

Average: B-

Saskatchewan is bringing classes back Sept. 1. Students at both elementary and high schools will be placed in cohorts. The province says physical distancing is not necessarily practical in school environments and instead focuses on minimizing contact — air high fives are better than hugs, for instance.

Carr: B

Carr likes that the province is open about the need to evolve if COVID-19 case loads change. But she doesn’t see the utility of creating “quarantine areas” for symptomatic children to be picked up from school. They should get home and stay home if sick.

De Souza-Kenney: C+

De Souza-Kenney likes that Saskatchewan has called for the creation of cohorts but doesn’t think the province goes far enough to develop the idea. High schools asked for “creative” cohort plans, for example, may be left with a lot of uncertainty about what is expected. The province also leaves the question of masks largely up to individual schools.

Korol: C

Saskatchewan could use clearer guidelines on mask-wearing, Korol said. She also said hand sanitizer should be provided within schools, because requiring students to bring their own could create stress and guilt for those living below the poverty line.

Manitoba

Average: B-

The Manitoba government is sending students back to the classroom on Sept. 8 with new guidelines. High school students may get remote learning in addition to class time. Masks are required for grades 4 to 12.

Carr: B

“I like that they say masks are required when taking the bus because of the opportunity for recirculated air on the bus,” Carr said. Masks, Carr said, are most important in spaces where people are together for long periods of time and talking. The risks are even greater when the air is being recirculated through air conditioning.

De Souza-Kenney: B

Making masks mandatory for grades 5 and up is a plus for De Souza-Kenney. She thinks Manitoba could be clearer on its definition of a cohort and the degree to which students can interact within their cohort.

Korol: C

No major red flags that differ from other provinces.

Ontario

Average: B

Ontario students will be back in class September, but their schedules and class sizes may vary depending on where they live. Masks are mandatory for grades 4 to 12.

Carr: B+

“I think Ontario is a B+ because they’re clear that there are different risks in different areas and planning for that from the start,” Carr said. “And they’re talking about mask use in indoor common areas — for me a common area is a classroom.”

De Souza-Kenney: B

Ontario’s plan beats out some of the other provinces in its clarity surrounding online learning, with students opting into a learning mode: in class or online. “It’s more robust than other provinces, you opt into a type of learning and you don’t have to prove that you’re well or unwell,” she said. Ontario also has strong rules for mandatory masks over Grade 4. She would like to see Ontario do more to define physical distancing in school and create more space for students with smaller class sizes.

Korol: C

Ontario’s clear guidelines on mask-wearing are a plus, Korol said, and she likes the province’s focus on blended learning. But, without a robust strategy to reduce anxiety, Ontario can’t score higher than C for Korol.

Quebec

Average: C

All elementary and high school students will be required to attend class in September unless they have a doctor’s note indicating they’re at high risk of COVID-19 complications or they live with someone at risk. Those students will be allowed to study remotely. Masks are required for grades 5 and up except in the classroom.

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Carr: C

A few points lead to a lower grade for Quebec for Carr. One is having teachers move from classroom to classroom, instead of students, which she said doesn’t make sense because adults are known spreaders of COVID-19. She also doesn’t support mask use everywhere except the classroom.

De Souza-Kenney: C+

The biggest red flag for De Souza-Kenney is the use of the word “bubbles” to describe classroom environments. A bubble is a group of people that only interacts with others inside the bubble, which is impossible in school where each student and teacher goes home to their own families, she said. So extra protections and more clarity are needed. Quebec has a strong plan to send students home in an outbreak, De Souza Kenney said.

Korol: D

Korol sees a number of red flags. The first is a requirement for doctor’s notes to complete online learning. “Many people feel they are at risk of complications or live with someone at risk, so this is not reassuring messaging.” She also had concerns about students staying in classrooms while teachers move; it could be hard on kids who have trouble sitting still. Korol likes Quebec’s plan to provide equipment to students for remote learning.

New Brunswick

Average: B

Students up to Grade 8 will attend school full-time, while high school students will have a combination of remote and in-class learning. Class sizes will be reduced for the lowest grade levels.

Carr: A for planning, B overall

Carr likes that New Brunswick has a more prescriptive plan to reduce interaction in high schools — namely, starting school with a mix of remote and in-class learning. She also likes the province’s plan to provide subsidies for students who may not already have a laptop to work from.

De Souza-Kenney: B

De Souza-Kenney likes New Brunswick’s online learning options but would like to see more details on the subsidies for students who need equipment to learn from home. She also criticized a plan to maintain a one-metre distance in classrooms, saying the rationale for less than two metres is unclear and may create a false sense of security.

Korol: C

In general, Korol likes the clarity of New Brunswick’s guidelines. “Less happy with the vague mention of subsidies,” she said. “Could cause embarrassment or anxiety if families have to apply for devices.”

Prince Edward Island

Average: B+

Schools on the Island are preparing to welcome all students back to class, while drafting backup plans for remote studies if required. Students will be sorted into cohorts that are as small as possible.

Carr: A

Carr loves that the province has thought about the fact that many students are likely to return to school at a disadvantage compared to where they would have been if the previous school year had proceeded normally. P.E.I. is also explicit about setting up “zones” within schools and limiting “cohorts” of students to certain zones.

De Souza-Kenney: B

De Souza-Kenney would like to see the “recommendation” of masks on buses upgraded to a requirement. In general, she felt P.E.I.’s plan for online learning, cohorts and physical distancing was sound. She especially likes that the island outlined that physical distancing will need to be taught in schools.

Korol: B

“P.E.I. gets a boost for mentioning that they will revise the curricula to make up for learning gaps,” she said. “Any mention of improving processes as we go is good for anxiety — it gives people hope that there is flexibility, and their concerns will be noted and improved upon.”

Nova Scotia

Average: B+

Schools will return to 100 per cent capacity in the fall, but Nova Scotia’s plan includes measures to address a second wave of COVID-19. High school students will study primarily online as classes return, while younger students will be in classes full-time.

Carr: A

Carr gave Nova Scotia an A for its staged reopening.

De Souza-Kenney: B

De Souza-Kenney praised Nova Scotia’s online learning plans for high school students and its strong mask-wearing mandates.

Korol: B

It’s good that Nova Scotia has a flexible second wave plan, she said. She also likes that the province plans to provide technology for students. “Just not sure if 14,000 devices is enough to meet the need,” she added. “This could cause some stress for families. Especially if families are expected to share those devices among multiple kids.”

Newfoundland and Labrador

Average: C+

The province aims to maximize in-class attendance with the option of a return to remote learning if the COVID-19 risk increases.

Carr: B

The clear communication in the plan, with different scenarios to be followed if COVID-19 cases increase, appeals to Carr. But she doesn’t like that bus drivers, and not students, are required to wear masks in a shared space she considers high risk for transmission.

De Souza-Kenney: C+

The plan includes a line that physical distancing should not be “overemphasized” for fear of doing psychological harm to students who will not find it practical. De Souza-Kenney said she thinks kids would not be harmed by physical distancing directives as long as the communication about it is clear. She appreciates the plan for remote learning in the case of increased COVID-19 cases.

Korol: D

While Korol thinks the province’s plan has some good elements, Newfoundland scores the lowest on lessening anxiety, mainly for the province’s statement that distancing could cause psychological harm. “Where is the research on this? We correct kids all the time to keep them safe,” she said.

Yukon, Northwest Territories, Nunavut

Average: B+

There are no active cases of COVID-19 in any of the three territories. Each plans to send students back to school with new protocols for distancing. Grades 10 to 12 in Yukon will spend half their school days learning online.

Carr: A for all three

“The territories are in a very different situation,” Carr said. “They’re all within the realities of their resources and the communities.”

De Souza-Kenney: B for all three

De Souza-Kenney acknowledges that the territories are in a unique position with no active cases. That said, she would prefer to see more education on physical distancing and mask wearing, especially in Yukon’s plan.

Korol: Flexible plans make sense in the territories where community transmission is low. Nunavut has a clear four-stage plan that could serve as a model for other jurisdictions on reducing anxiety. “From an anxiety perspective, anticipating unintended consequences and having a plan for that (helps),” she said.

With files from The Canadian Press

Alex McKeen
Alex McKeen is a Vancouver-based reporter covering transportation and labour for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @alex_mckeen”

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