Remember school fire drills? Get ready for COVID-19 drills

Mike Jiggens

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School is back in session next week, and anxiety is abounding among parents, teachers, students, bus drivers and anyone else connected with the return to in-class learning following a six-month layoff.

Parents, understandably, have mixed feelings about sending their children back to school. On the one hand, they realize the importance of a return to a formal and proper education, especially after such an unprecedented period of inactivity. But they also fear for the safety and well-being of their offspring as no end to the COVID-19 pandemic can be seen on the immediate horizon.

Teachers, too, feel vulnerable in their return to the classroom, and their unions have spoken loud and clear to the provincial government about the potential dangers they perceive. This cocktail of education, health and politics is far from palatable, and I fear September could be a repeat performance of March.

In this day and age when most households have a home computer and an Internet connection, remote online learning can be achieved. But it’s easier said than done. It might be fine for high school-aged students who have the maturity to knuckle down and study. They know full well that if they don’t, their chances of advancing to a post-secondary institution will become slimmer if they choose to goof off instead.

It’s a different situation, though, for primary school children. If an online education delivery was their only option, they would require continual parental supervision to ensure they were doing what they’re supposed to do. That same parent might also be earning his or her living remotely and could find simultaneously juggling both tasks to be virtually impossible.

Then there’s also the issue of the number of students studying online and the number of computers in the home. If two or more students from the same household are learning remotely from live lectures and are in different grades, Mom and Dad will have to cough up the money needed for additional hardware.

With those pitfalls in mind, it would seem the logical solution would be to have children in the classrooms … but is it safe? One of the problems is that younger children below the Grade 4 level aren’t required to wear masks, and this has primary grade teachers on edge.

If schools were wise – at least at the elementary level – they’d forget about teaching reading, writing and arithmetic during the first week of school and concentrate instead about delivering a full week of lessons about the safety protocols that need to be followed to function during this pandemic. Kids have been out of school for six months already, and one more week without a formal curriculum isn’t going to hold them back. Teaching them instead about the importance of physical distancing, the obligation to frequently wash and sanitize their hands, the need to resist touching their faces, the importance of wearing masks and adhering to other safety measures is far more important at this time.

Just like we used to stage fire drills in school, it’s now time to implement COVID-19 drills. Teachers will have to continually speak up and say, “Tommy, you’re standing too close to Billy,” or, “Sally, you’ve just touched the doorknob and need to sanitize your hands.” Although masks are optional for younger children, they should be encouraged to wear them anyway, and teachers can perhaps conceive in-class games involving mask-wearing that might result in kids finding it “fun” to put them on.

“Fun” may be the key word this school year. In-class activities that were once considered fun will have to be shelved if they can no longer be achieved through physical distancing. But this doesn’t mean school has to become dull and boring. Educators are a bright lot, and they can undoubtedly come up with new activities that are still fun yet adhere to the necessary protocols. If we’re to get a full year in this time around, such changes are going to be necessary.