A group of children with masks on are learning in a classroom with a teacher in a mask assisting one of them.

Equity, Policy, School Community

School Shutdowns

Weighing the better “flexible-response” options

When COVID-19 hit in March 2020, pandemic emergency response plans embraced a singular education strategy – close all K–12 schools and default to hastily assembled, and largely untested, “home learning” programs. Nine months into the pandemic, public health authorities, ministries of education, and school superintendents are singing a different tune: keeping students in school is the first priority as we prepare to ride out the second wave of viral infections.

All of us are far more acutely aware of the accumulating academic, human, and social costs of shutting down schools, which fall unevenly upon children and teens in the most disadvantaged communities. Combating the relentless virus and keeping regional economies intact will not likely be greatly advanced through system-wide shutdowns.

With COVID-19 infection rates spiking again, school closures are becoming a distinct possibility, if only as a temporary respite for shaken-up students, fatigued teachers, and bewildered parents. Setting a relatively low infection positivity number, such as the three percent figure applied in closing New York City schools, is unwise because, by that standard, all schools will ultimately close at some point this school year.

What’s emerging is a “flexible response” doctrine that embraces a fuller arsenal of strategies and borrows the phrase popularized by former U.S. Secretary of State Robert McNamara in the early 1960s. Banishing the devastating pandemic requires a carefully considered set of options and a calibrated range of responses.

Let’s review some of the far more effective, targeted strategies:

Isolating cases and suspending exposed classes

A case-by-case isolation strategy in provinces and districts with lower transmission rates has proven reasonably effective, as long as the public health system can sustain contact tracing and isolate children and staff who have COVID-19 exposures. It was working, up until now, in most provinces covered by the Atlantic Bubble. Implementation challenges are compromising its effectiveness in Ontario, where the numbers of infections exceed the current capacity for contact tracing.

Short, time-limited school closures

Extending school holidays is emerging as the most expedient way of applying an education “circuit breaker.” Starting the Christmas holidays early, as in Quebec and Alberta, and extending the break into January 2021, as in Manitoba, are the latest “quick fixes” gaining traction right across Canada. It’s much easier to extend school holiday time because that policy response resonates with teachers and education support workers, and is more minimally disruptive for working parents. Policymakers often opt for the path of least resistance.

Dual track-student choice model

Giving students and families the choice of completing courses in-person or online was implemented in Ontario and it caused an array of unanticipated, disruptive, and unpredictable consequences. Students and parents in more affluent school districts in the TDSB chose in-person schooling, while online enrolment was highest in the district’s poorest and most racialized communities. School schedules were constantly changing as students bailed out of in-person classes, generating unexpected demand for online courses. Hundreds of thousands of students in Toronto, Peel, and York Region have shifted online, rendering the two-track strategy essentially unsustainable over the longer term.

Mixed in-person and virtual hybrid blended learning model

Moving to a hybrid blended learning model on a so-called “rotation system” is a response full of implementation bugs. Some Ontario school districts have resorted to dual track delivery models with classes combining in-person and video-streamed classes. That’s far from ideal because effective online teaching requires its own approach, not just televising in-class lessons. Since September 2020, New Brunswick has implemented a Hybrid Blended Learning Model with alternating days in all high schools, with decidedly mixed results. Curriculum coverage suffers, with losses estimated at up to 30 percent of learning outcomes, and student participation rates are reportedly low during the hybrid off days in the checkerboard high-school schedule.

Defaulting to virtual home learning in upper grades

Suspending in-person schooling and reverting to virtual or online home learning is an implementable option, only if it applies to all classes in Grades 7 to 12. Splitting larger classes in urban or suburban school zones is prohibitively expensive without significant hikes in provincial spending. That explains why so many school districts resort to shifting everyone to online classes. Younger children benefit more from teacher-guided instruction and do not spread the virus as readily, judging from K–6 in-person classes in Denmark and British Columbia.

Closing all schools should be the last resort this time around. That’s the consensus among leading British, Canadian, and American pediatricians and epidemiologists. Sending kids home should only be considered if positivity rates spike in schools. It’s an easy decision if and when transmission rates turn schools into vectors and staff infection rates make it impossible to provide a reasonable quality of education.

Resurgent rates of infection and community transmission in October and November have called into question some of the previous assumptions about the limited COVID-19 risks in schools. One recent research summary in Science Magazine painted “a more complex picture” of the very real risks and of the critical need to be flexible and responsive in the face of a rapidly changing, unpredictable public health crisis. There’s no perfect solution, but adopting a “flexible response” strategy, attuned to regional and local pandemic conditions, still makes the most sense.

Photo: Adobe Stock

Meet the Expert(s)

Paul W. Bennett

Director and Lead Researcher, Schoolhouse Institute

Paul W. Bennett, Ed.D., is Director of Schoolhouse Institute, Halifax, N.S., and author of The State of the System: A reality check on Canada’s schools (MQUP, September 2020).

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