Last week, British Columbia announced its plan for reopening schools in September. At best, it is optimistic, and at worst, it could be dangerously incompetent. The plan involves a full reopening of schools in “learning cohorts” of up to 60 individuals in elementary schools and up to 120 in high schools, including both students and teachers. Within these cohorts, it does not appear as though there will be an expectation of physical distancing, and so the aim is to limit contact between groups as much as possible. With the recognition that formulating a comprehensive plan for reopening is difficult given the unpredictability of the situation, I think we can predict with a reasonable amount of certainty that some aspects of the plan are incredibly treacherous, even if BC were to see a dramatic improvement in cases over the next month.
In a lot of ways, the plan looks questionable on face. If the goal is full-time instruction, this means more than one cohort will have to be using the school building at a time. Kitsilano High School (featured in the image at the top), which is located near to my house, has 1360 enrolled students, meaning there would have to be at least 12 cohorts, and that doesn’t even include staff. There is no realistic way that one high school, even one that is relatively large from a spatial perspective, will be able to prevent 12 groups of people, each with 120 members, from coming into contact with each other. The BC government’s website addresses secondary schools of this size explicitly, suggesting that the schools “will need to consider modifications to their bell schedules and timetables to accommodate students in the classroom full-time.” Unless Kits Secondary is planning on having 12 separate lunch breaks, this seems dubious. What this means is that this experiment either turns into an uncontrolled intermingling of hundreds of students, devastating from a transmission perspective, or schools will have to rethink this plan and likely have certain cohorts coming in on certain days.
Moreover, even if schools can ensure the learning cohorts are distant from each other, the size of the cohorts in and of themselves is concerning. If we consider not only the 120 people, but the families they are likely to be interacting with in a non physically distant manner, the size of this group balloons to 480 people (if on average each person is in contact with three people, a modest estimate). Compare the size of BC’s learning cohorts to the comparable alternatives which other provinces have mandated: In New Brunswick, learning bubbles contain 15 students, while Quebec, they will be sized at six (although, to be fair, the magnitude of the pandemic is substantially worse in Quebec than in BC). These alternatives seem more reasonable than BC’s egregiously inflated 120-person collectives.
The controversy over mandatory return policies
The last problem is the fact that in-classroom instruction has been made functionally mandatory for almost all students. Officially, the BC government has created an illusion of choice, because parents can opt into an online program (“based on availability,” ambiguously enough) or can homeschool. Crucially, both of these options would require students to be unenrolled from the school that they attend, a fact which would preclude most parents from realistically opting out of the reopening. This could be contentious given that 48% of parents reported they were undecided on whether to send their children back to school, according to a recent survey conducted by Leger and the Association for Canadian Studies.
It feels a bit as though the students of BC, including myself, are being used as a social battering ram, a conveniently low-risk group to socially experiment upon with public policy inventions. More importantly, the plan is legitimately concerning for students who are immunocompromised or live in high-risk households. A friend of mine attending a large public school has moderately severe asthma and is classified as high-risk. For people like him, the extent of the explanation on the government website is a nebulous bullet point asserting that there will be “options for students with underlying complex medical needs.” What exactly are these options? Will there be sufficient online instruction, and who will be able to receive it? There are a lot of questions the BC government needs to answer in the next month before schools reopen.
Alternative approaches to reopening
Frankly, it is unclear to me what the solution to these challenges are, and I confess that uninhibited criticism of government policy is hardly a productive objective for this article. I’ll be the first to say that in-classroom instruction is incredibly valuable in comparison to online alternatives. These days, my main form of social interaction is making eye contact with my neighbour’s cat. Less trivially, for students with learning disabilities, or who live in unsafe households, prolonged online education could be extremely disruptive. As well, some parents of young children faced mental health issues during quarantine, and balancing childcare with careers was for many an unmanageable task.
To me—and I am by no means qualified to provide expert commentary on public health in this circumstance, so take this with a grain of salt—the most logically intuitive solution would appear to be mandatory mask-wearing policies, in common areas if not in classrooms. Given that physical distancing will not be possible in a significant amount of these cases, masks can mitigate this risk, and they have a relatively low social cost. The BC government’s webpage says that “masks will be available upon request,” but are not mandatory, because wearing a mask is “a personal choice that will always be respected.” Even on buses, when students will inevitably be in close proximity to other students outside of their cohort, masks are still not mandatory, shockingly enough.
This is an inadequate approach, and many doctors agree: Dr. Wei Li, a doctor from Burnaby, is filing an application which suggests mandatory mask rules in indoor spaces including schools. Other provinces have taken this into consideration; for instance, Alberta’s school reopening plan includes mandatory masks, as does Ontario’s, and even more provinces have specific rules surrounding masks on school buses. Dr. Bonnie Henry has described mask policies as “heavy handed,” and that is perhaps true in some circumstances, but I figure it can’t do any harm, and if the cohorts are going to be fairly large, it seems like a good insurance policy at the very least.
The BC government plans to release more details on the plan on August 26th, giving school administrators under two weeks to implement changes before schools open. Until then, ambiguity around the logistical realities of the reopening plan persists.