Phasing in school re-entry
In its latest report, doctors from SickKids and other children’s hospitals, along with epidemiologists, public health physicians, and a volunteer advisory group of teachers and parents, warned that it cannot be business as usual when schools open. The authors say that students will need to be taught in smaller classes and have access to an increased number of staff.
The report also warns that attention must be paid to students’ mental health.
Young people feeling effects of COVID
In a recent questionnaire from Statistics Canada, almost two-thirds (64%) of young people aged 15 to 24 reported that COVID-19 and physical distancing had had a negative impact on their mental health. Nearly half (41%) reported “symptoms consistent with moderate or severe anxiety.” Fifty-nine percent of parents who responded to a survey by Children’s Mental Health Ontario said they had noticed behavioural changes in their children since COVID-19, including things like drastic changes in mood, altered sleep patterns and persistent sadness.
“Back to normal” not a reasonable goal for the fall return to school
To address the mental health, emotional, and educational needs of all students, many experts are recommending a phased-in approach to the return to school. They say there is no need for all students to start on the first day, and instead boards could institute a gradual return.
In a number of European countries, school re-openings have been phased-in, staggering students by age. This process has already been used in Ontario during regular school years, where high schools sometimes phase-in grade 9 students early, and elementary schools often phase-in kindergarten students.
Students will have been out of school for six months. Many experts, experienced educators, and support staff are recommending a “gentle return model” where the first few weeks would be focused on supporting students to adjust to being back in school. The authors of the SickKids report also recommend that the first few weeks of school should include time for staff to assess students to identify learning gaps and mental health needs.
Possible model for phasing-in starts with educators and support staff
A model proposed by the Massachusetts Teachers Association, the American Federation of Teachers of Massachusetts, and the Boston Teachers Union, suggests four phases:
- Phase 1: teachers, administrators, support staff and school personnel have uninterrupted time in school to set up classrooms, learn about new health and safety protocols, engage in professional development and prepare lessons
- Phase 2: one-on-one meetings between teachers and students and families to evaluate students’ educational and well-being needs and prepare them for the new health and safety protocols
- Phase 3: a 6 week period where in-person classes resume for most students and the focus is on learning new structures and routines, and laying the groundwork for Social Emotional Learning and academic learning.
Student and staff mental health paramount
In recognition of the need for a gradual and supported return to school, School Mental Health Ontario is in the process of developing tool kits for “the first ten days.” The organization currently has COVID-19 tip sheets for parents, educators, and students. The organization’s goal is that everyone – staff, students, and parents – is able to experience a mentally healthy return to school.
People for Education will also publish the resources as they become available.