We’ve reached the point during the Covid-19 pandemic where governments are starting to have deeper conversations about re-opening things and re-starting some economic activities that have been shut down since mid-March. With no clear guidebook about how to do this, that’s leaving different governments to take different approaches, going from the aggressive to the cautious. It’s a delicate balancing act and honestly isn’t as easy as some would suggest.

There are many things we simply don’t know about this disease and as a result, governments are operating on certain assumptions that may prove to not be the soundest. One of those assumptions that some governments are latching onto is that Covid-19 isn’t as dangerous for children. Those assumptions are seriously being tested, as we now hear stories of new cases of children falling ill from “rare, mysterious Covid-19-linked illnesses” in the United States and United Kingdom.

It’s with that backdrop that Quebec has taken the most aggressive approach to re-opening their province. While most provinces have cancelled the rest of the school year, Quebec is planning to re-open schools starting on this coming Monday. For most of the province, that plan hasn’t changed, with only the Montreal region having their start pushed back to May 25th. That has left many people, myself included, wondering how the province could possibly re-open schools in a safe way, while still respecting physical distancing measures and still have functional schools. Many have also wondered what that might look like. Well today I came across something that will give you an idea and a glimpse into the experiment Quebec is about to launch families into:

That video shows how Morin Heights Elementary School, located in Morin-Heights north of Montreal, is preparing for the return. I came across that video this morning as it was being shared by many friends and former colleagues in the teaching field. After seeing the universal comments of shock and dismay, I had to watch it for myself and man am I ever glad I did. My wife (who teaches) and I were just having a long talk about this very topic last night, and those images put into stark relief not just how much things need to change in schools, but also shows that Quebec might be set up for failure trying to rush this return in the name of normalcy.

First off, the steps that this school seems to be putting in place for distancing measures in the yard and the hallways seems good in theory, but I can picture chaos in practice, especially while dealing with young, energetic children. The sight of the classroom was just as stark to me, seeing those desks spread so far apart, something that I assumed would be the case (more on that in a second). But if that was stark, the new rules were even more so given what it will mean for how a school operates. Just the simple task of eating lunch becomes a huge task with new rules around everything from what you can bring to school to what you can touch, right down to your trash. That’s a big change for anyone of us, but can you image how it will be for a 1st grader who usually needs their teachers help to open their granola bar or yogurt cup? It’s a lot.

That’s not to say that any of these new rules are bad or misguided. They’re necessary and that’s part of the new Covid-19 landscape. But I would argue that this video is a great example of why Quebec shouldn’t be rushing kids back into schools and why those provinces that have cancelled the rest of the school year have done the prudent thing. Schools are just a microcosm of the steps and re-thinks that will be required to get back to any semblance of normal. That video shows some of the steps that will need to be taken, but you can also see how they won’t be enough and larger re-thinks about how schools operating at full capacity will work.

There is no way that you can return to schools with that physical distancing in place with normal levels of students. You can see how you’ll quickly run out of space just in the classrooms. Then you add just moving in and out of the building, how much of a task that becomes. Also you would have to assume that certain classes, like gym and music classes, might have to go to ensure proper health measures are followed. Put that all together and you’ll see that a major re-think of how schools operate will be required to allow them to work for at least the next couple of years.

Something will have to give. Do you bring in more physical space to house classes with smaller numbers but more space between them? If you do, you’ll have to hire so many more teachers, so will you do that? Furthermore, because of the pandemic and the assumption that a) teachers/staff will get sick and b) anyone who is remotely sick won’t be allowed in the building for longer periods (2 weeks quarantined?), will you have enough teachers to fill all those new classroom jobs and still fill supply teaching pools?

If you don’t go that way, do you opt to have smaller classes but stagger the time that kids are in school and reduce instruction time to make sure everyone can get some schooling? Some kids in the mornings, another group in the PM? Or do you do alternating days? Furthermore, if you go that way how are parents supposed to plan going to work if their kids aren’t in school 5 days a week for full days? What measures do you put in place to help families then?

I know those are a lot of questions but that’s what I came up with during a 30-minute chat last night and I’m sure there are many other things that education ministries across Canada are trying to answer before they bring schools back. The point is that returning to school in this environment isn’t as simple as flipping a switch and for all the unknowns we have out there about the health piece, there are still knowns that we have that will require major structural changes to allow this return to work and be safe for all involved.

As you’ve seen in that example from Quebec, while some measures have been planned, there are big holes there that show the risks that come with rushing kids back to schools. I don’t wish for any jurisdiction to become a cautionary tale due to their approaches, especially when it comes to children. But I can’t help but look at what I saw in that video and cringe, knowing that if that was my daughters’ school that I wouldn’t feel safe sending her back into that environment. That’s not the fault of the school, their staff or even the school board. They have no say in this matter and those that have tried to say “no” to re-opening have been overruled by the province. The responsibility for this move lies completely with the Legault government in Quebec. It’s their decision to rush this back, all in the apparent attempt to get back to “normal”, no matter how unprepared they are for it. I pray that the worst doesn’t happen in this case but I’m glad that my loved ones won’t be exposed to it, and I can’t help but think that many others looking in from the outside of Quebec are feeling the same way.