Can we really keep kids distant in school amid COVID-19? It won't be easy, experts say

WATCH: Quebec reopens elementary schools outside Montreal amid coronavirus pandemic

Teachers in masks. Classroom sizes reduced. Spray bottles of sanitizer ready for little hands at doorways.

There will be no such thing as normal for Canadian students, public health officials believe, should they even be allowed back to school in 2020. 

The COVID-19 pandemic forced schools across the country shut their doors in mid-March. Now, as provinces push ahead on their individual reopening plans, experts are questioning the effectiveness of physical-distancing measures for children and their impact on education.

“Kids want to hug, they want to be close,” said Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of Toronto.

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“I have two young kids. You can explain to them what’s going on and they can understand it, but it’s the kind of self-restraint it takes. It’s different from telling kids to stay away from strangers on the street. This is their buddies on the playground, the close play, close contact… Their hands get into everything.”

Public health protocols have infiltrated nearly every walk of life in Canada, and schools are no different. Quebec, the epicentre of the pandemic in Canada, is the first province to test it out.

Schools and daycares reopened regionally this month. In Montreal, still considered a virus hotbed, schools were not permitted to reopen.

But for those schools that did, everything looks different. Desks are spread out with a maximum of 15 students per classroom. Arrows have been pasted on the ground, spaced two metres apart, to direct movement in hallways. When a bell sounds, students are required to wash their hands — and it rings often.

Ultimately, it is up to parents if they want to send their kids back to class. At one school in Howick, Que., only 33 of the typical 170 students returned for the first week back.

Still, the adjustment for children won’t come easy, said Kristina Llewellyn, a social development studies professor at the University of Waterloo. She worries it will reverse the work educators have done over the years to foster a healthy and multifaceted learning environment.

“For a long time, we’ve told kids that learning is based on tapping into their social and emotional selves. We’ve spent a lot of time enhancing that, and now all of a sudden we’re saying, ‘Don’t tap into that, don’t be social beings,'” she told Global News.

“I worry, especially for the young grades, whether that could do more long-term harm on learning and the kind of relationships they can develop within a school environment.”

Obedience will be a struggle on several levels. While kids can gradually adapt to standing on footprints on the floor and missing friends in their class, experts aren’t convinced it will happen overnight.

There’s also the issue of staffing. In Alberta and Ontario, both provinces have faced shortages of teachers and educational assistants over the years, some the result of changes to government mandates and funding.

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“We’re spreading students out in schools to any space available. It will require more teachers to be with students in those spaces. We’re also going to need intensive cleaning,” she said.

“It’s going to require a lot more resources, something we’ve seen a reduction in over the years, to make physically distancing possible and effective in schools.”

Provincial plans differ

Alberta reopened daycares this month but backtracked on schools. In-person classes have been cancelled for the remainder of the year, but schools are in the second part of the province’s phased reopening plan, which has no set date.

Ontario decided Tuesday to keep schools closed for the remainder of the school year. When asked why he didn’t opt for a regional plan like Quebec’s, Premier Doug Ford said it was too big a risk.

“I’m just not going to chance it,” Ford said. “I’m just not going to chance it when it comes to our kids.”

France — once in the grips of the worst outbreak in Europe — saw its plan backfire just one week into letting more than one million students return to class. Enhanced physical-distancing measures were set in place, including classes capped at 10 and 15, constant handwashing and mask-wearing teachers. But 70 cases sprung up a week later connected to the schools, forcing the schools to close again.

The country’s education minister said it was “inevitable.”

Reopening schools at this point in the pandemic is a “frightening experiment” on young people, Llewellyn said, because “we don’t yet know enough about this virus when it comes to young people.”

Impact on teachers and students

If school resumes in Ontario in September as planned, it still “won’t look the same,” according to Education Minister Stephen Lecce. Physical-distancing measures will be in place, including spacing changes and potentially smaller class sizes, he said.

Details won’t be revealed until the end of June, but that doesn’t change the impacts it will have on students and teachers come fall, said Charles Pascal, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and former deputy education minister in Ontario.

Pascal believes the “nuts and bolts” of distancing measures in schools will be a challenge but, overall, the “easy part.” He said preparation to reopen schools goes beyond public health requirements.

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“School needs to be reimagined. The old ‘normal’ was already not working for so many students,” he told Global News.

“Teachers have gone through a remarkably stressful time. They’ve done the very best they can, but they need social and emotional preparation. And in turn, they need to be ready for students who have also gone through a remarkably stressful time.”

Lecce acknowledged that the pandemic has been “tough on children.” He nodded to the province’s $12-million investment in mental health amid COVID-19 as part of what can assist educators and kids. There was no mention of in-school efforts when classes resume.

Without a plan that taps into a sense of emotional recovery, Pascal said teachers will struggle with educating and students will struggle with learning. That, in turn, could impact how schools operate overall, he said.

“Social distancing will be extremely difficult, but it’s so much more than social distancing. If you haven’t dealt with underlying issues, learning isn’t going to happen. It’s going to be disruptive for too many kids and too many teachers.”

— With files from the Canadian Press and Global News’ Kalina Laframboise 

© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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